NASA Delays Spacewalk, Citing Space Debris Threat to Astronauts


The weapon test, carried out by Russia’s Ministry of Defense, occurred at a moment of heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, as U.S. officials have warned allies that Moscow is building a military presence on its border with Ukraine. And the safety threats to the space station posed by the missile test also occurred as NASA is negotiating with Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, to trade astronaut rides to the International Space Station on U.S. vehicles for seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Officials from both countries consider such arrangements key to maintaining operations on the space station.

“There are about 1,700 new objects, larger objects that are being tracked,” Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy manager of the space station, said on Monday during a news conference that previewed the scheduled spacewalk. “It will take a few months to get all of those cataloged and into our normal debris tracking process, where we can then assess miss distances and how close these items get to the I.S.S.”

Ms. Weigel said that the Russian weapon test doubled the size of the background debris environment for the space station. She said that the new field of wreckage raised the risk to spacewalking astronauts by about 7 percent. But she said that “falls within the family” of similar risk calculations for past spacewalks.

The Russian missile test, which lifted off from the Plesetsk launch site, roughly 650 miles north of Moscow, angered U.S. officials and drew condemnation from other countries, including Australia, Canada and Britain.

Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said shortly after the test that it was “pitiful that the Russians would do this.”

The spacewalk delay came a day before the White House will convene the first meeting of the National Space Council during the Biden administration. In a letter sent to the council on Monday, lawmakers on the Senate Commerce Committee urged Vice President Kamala Harris, the council’s chairwoman, to act on the Russian antisatellite test and “work to develop international dialogue on norms of responsible behavior in space.”

There have been a dozen spacewalks this year, many of which added new components and solar panels to the space station’s exterior. NASA intends to keep the 21-year-old orbital laboratory running until 2030, pending congressional approval. But the station has already shown signs of its age, like cracks and air leaks that were discovered on a key module in 2019.



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