A seat liner from the damaged Soyuz MS-22 capsule at the International Space Station has been relocated to Endurance, converting the SpaceX Crew Dragon to a five-person “lifeboat” should the crew be forced to evacuate in the event of an extreme emergency.
The International Space Station mission management team made the decision to relocate the seat liner from Soyuz MS-22 to the Endurance Crew Dragon on January 12, according to a NASA statement. The seat liner in question belongs to NASA astronaut Frank Rubio, who flew to the ISS on September 21, 2022 aboard the Russian Soyuz craft. This is being done to “provide lifeboat capabilities in the event Rubio would need to return to Earth because of an emergency evacuation from the space station,” the space agency said.
An apparent micrometeorite struck the Soyuz in December, damaging its cooling system. Roscosmos deemed the spacecraft as being unsafe for a crew ride back to Earth, forcing the Russian space agency and NASA to come up with a solution. That solution is MS-23—an uncrewed replacement Soyuz vehicle that won’t launch to the ISS until February 22 at the earliest.
That’s 33 days from now, an uncomfortable length of time during which Rubio and cosmonauts Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin don’t have a safe and reliable means of returning to Earth, should a severe emergency arise on the ISS. A full evacuation of the orbital outpost has never occurred, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen—hence the need to increase the crew capacity of Endurance, which was originally configured for four astronauts: NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Anna Kikina of Roscosmos.
On January 17, NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Nicole Mann worked inside of the Endurance crew ship, gathering tools and performing prep work in advance of the seat liner relocation. The crew moved Rubio’s seat liner and installed it inside the Crew Dragon on the following day, according to NASA. Endurance can now safely accommodate five astronauts, but as NASA points out, the adjustment also “allows for increased crew protection by reducing the heat load inside the MS-22 spacecraft for Prokopyev and Petelin in case of an emergency return to Earth.” Indeed, temperatures inside the MS-22 crew cabin could fluctuate between 100 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit (high 30s to low 40s Celsius) during reentry, according to Roscosmos.
The replacement MS-23 Soyuz is expected to arrive at the ISS in late February, but that doesn’t mean the three-person crew will immediately return to Earth. A replacement crew was supposed to fly on MS-23, but that mission now likely won’t fly until the fall of 2023. A consequence of this is that the MS-22 trio might have to stay on the ISS for an entire year. Dina Contella, ISS program operations integration manager, hinted as much during a news briefing held on Tuesday, saying Rubio, Prokopyev, and Petelin will “probably” return to Earth in September, as reported in Ars Technica
As for the fate of MS-22, it will return to Earth—sans crew—after MS-23 arrives at the station. Once that happens, Rubio’s seat liner and those belonging to Prokopyev and Petelin (currently inside MS-22) will be moved to the newly arrived Soyuz vehicle.