In 2018, the question of whether a hole had been intentionally drilled into the Russian spacecraft Soyuz MS-09 by a saboteur sparked an investigation led by the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.
Iterations of the claim appeared on X and a Reddit post on the subthread Theory/”Conspiracy”?in August 2023 that claimed the astronaut “was jealous and paranoid about what her boyfriend was doing back on Earth so she sabotage[d] the entire space station” (archived here).
But did that really happen? It depends on whom you ask. Russian media repeated an unfounded rumor that Serena Auñón-Chancellor, a female NASA astronaut, had intentionally drilled a hole in the Russian spacecraft. NASA has publicly disputed the rumor.
Let’s launch into the origins of this gossip.
The Soyuz MS-09 is a Russian rocket that was launched from Kazakhstan on June 6, 2018. Three crew members – NASA's Auñón-Chancellor, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev, and European Space Agency astronaut Alexander Gerst – were transported by the spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) in June as part of a six-month mission that would end on Dec. 20, 2018.
On Aug. 29, 2018, mission ground control in both Houston and Moscow detected signs of a “minute pressure leak” that resulted in a “small loss of cabin pressure,” according to updates made to the International Space Station Status blog beginning Aug. 30, 2018 (archived here).
The day following the leak, six crew members determined that there was a two-millimeter hole in the orbital compartment, or upper section, of the Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft attached to the Rassvet module of the Russian segment. This is a section of the Soyuz that does not return to Earth. Mission Control in Houston and the Russian Mission Control Center outside Moscow worked with the on-board crew to repair using “epoxy on a gauze wipe to plug the hole.”
The crew was never thought to be in danger and after repairing, continued their six-month mission.
(The hole is shown on the left before it was repaired, as is seen in the photo on the right. NASA)
Some Russian media outlets reported the supposedly anonymous allegation that the hole may have been deliberately drilled by a crew member in space. According to an article published by the Russian news agency TASS, then-Roscosmos Space Chief Dmitry Rogozin had said:
We are considering all the theories. The one about a meteorite impact has been rejected because the spaceship’s hull was evidently impacted from inside. However it is too early to say definitely what happened. But, it seems to be done by a faltering hand… it is a technological error by a specialist. It was done by a human hand - there are traces of a drill sliding along the surface. We don’t reject any theories.
It is a matter of honor for Energia Rocket and Space Corporation to find the one responsible for that, to find out whether it was an accidental defect or a deliberate spoilage and where it was done - either on Earth or in space. Now it is essential to see the reason, to learn the name of the one responsible for that. And we will find out, without fail.
NASA and Roscosmos issued a joint statement on Sept. 13, 2018, announcing the Russian space agency’s plan to “establish a Roscosmos-led Commission to investigate the cause of the leak” and acknowledging speculation “circulating in the media regarding the possible cause of the incident.”
In 2021, Russian media outlet RIA Novosti reported that the investigation had been completed and the results sent to law enforcement officials for the next steps.
“Earlier, reports appeared in the Russian media that the hole in the Soyuz was allegedly drilled by American astronaut Serina Auñon-Chancellor due to suffering after a failed romantic relationship with one of the crew members,” wrote the RIA Novosti.
No further details were provided, and as of this publication, it is not apparent that any follow-up actions have been taken.
At the time, NASA again disputed the allegations.
"NASA astronauts, including Serena Auñón-Chancellor, are extremely well-respected, serve their country, and make invaluable contributions to the agency," said NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Leuders wrote in a post shared to X on Aug. 13, 2021. "We stand behind Serena and her professional conduct. We do not believe there is any credibility to these accusations."
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson echoed Leuders’ sentiment in a post shared to X on Aug. 13, 2021, writing, ”I whole heartedly agree with Kathy’s statement. I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts.”
I whole heartedly agree with Kathy’s statement. I fully support Serena and I will always stand behind our astronauts. https://t.co/gBvgFTP5vF
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) August 13, 2021
“All the International Space Station partners are dedicated to mission safety and the welfare of the crew. The International Space Station partners all participate in multiple reviews prior to every major station activity to assess and ensure the safety of all crew members,” wrote Brian Odom, NASA chief historian, in an email to Snopes, adding:
The hole that was detected in late August 2018 by the space station crew was quickly sealed, restoring air-tight pressure to the station. Russian cosmonauts conducted a spacewalk that December to gather additional engineering data for Russian specialists on Earth and to look externally at the effectiveness of the internal repair. The Soyuz spacecraft was thoroughly checked and deemed safe for the crew to return to Earth, which it did, on Dec. 20, 2018. Our NASA crew members perform their missions with professionalism and integrity.
As of January 2024, it is still not apparent who or what did cause the hole, though many experts agree that it was likely due to a manufacturing defect.