The Russian section of the International Space Station gained a 23-ton science module Thursday. Hours later, the new arrival, named Nauka, took the station and its astronaut crew for a surprising ride.

Also known as the Multipurpose Laboratory Module, Nauka launched to space last week. As it headed to its rendezvous with the space station, the module encountered a series of problems with its engines and systems that ground controllers steadily worked out. Thursday’s additional incident, involving an unexpected firing of the module’s thrusters, is likely to prompt an investigation into what went wrong.

At 9:29 a.m. Eastern time Thursday, the module gently docked with the outpost in orbit. Cheers could be heard over the audio feed as the operation was completed.

“Oleg, congratulations, that was not an easy docking,” Russia’s ground control said to Oleg Novitsky, the astronaut who managed the docking operation from the space station.

A few hours later, at about 12:45 p.m. Eastern time, Nauka upended the astronauts’ day when its thrusters unexpectedly started firing, twisting the orientation of the space station by 45 degrees before other thrusters fired to try to push it back into its correct position.


The torque of Nauka’s thrusters would have put strain on some structures and the change in direction would have meant that the solar panels and antennas were not pointing in the correct direction.

On NASA Television, Rob Navias, a NASA commentator, said the astronauts on the space station were never in danger and the situation was now stable.

In a statement, Roscosmos said, “A process is underway to transfer Nauka from a flight regime to the regime of ‘docked to the ISS.’ Work is ongoing with remnants of fuel in the module.”

Earlier this year, Russian space officials were talking about pulling out of the International Space Station when the current agreement with the United States and other partners expires in 2025, a reflection of souring relations with the U.S.

But that didn’t stop them from sending up the Nauka module, whose design and development began more than 20 years ago — long before the current political tensions bubbled up. Its launch was repeatedly delayed by manufacturing flaws and underfinancing.

The module is seen as important for the entire Russian space program. Russia is currently the only major operator without its own laboratory module, and Nauka in Russian means science. That is fitting for its main mission: housing laboratory equipment for experiments.


But the module will also provide extra living room, including a bed for one cosmonaut making it possible for the permanent Russian crew to be expanded to three members. It also adds water purifying equipment and can draw electricity from its solar wings. The Russian section of the station had been drawing power from the U.S. side.

It also hosts a new robotic arm provided by the European Space Agency.

With a weight of more than 20 tons and a length of more than 42 feet, Nauka is one of the largest modules on the station. A series of spacewalks will be needed to hook it up to the station’s electrical and command circuits.

Although a Russia Proton rocket flawlessly lofted the new module into orbit, problems appeared almost immediately.

A glitch with the spacecraft’s engines had scientists back on Earth nervous for days, according to the European Space Agency.

“Adversity insisted on being part of the journey,” the agency said in a statement.


While Nauka eventually attached to the station, it flew as an autonomous spacecraft for several days in orbit. The module deployed its solar panels and antennas but then failed to fire engines to raise its orbit, a potentially mission-ending problem. Russian engineers managed to correct it, the European Space Agency said, characterizing the episode as a few “hectic days at mission control.”

Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, never directly addressed the problems in its updates on the mission, noting only in a news release July 22 that the module’s thrusters were, in fact, operating.

“Telemetry confirmed the module propulsion unit operability,” Roscosmos said in the statement.

The docking procedure itself was risky. After all, Russia sent a 23-ton object on a collision course with the $100 billion space station. The key to success is that the collision needed to be gentle and in the correct configuration.

What Russia sought to avoid is what happened in 1997, when a Progress cargo rocket crashed into its earlier space station, Mir, rupturing one of the modules and destroying a solar panel.

Since the 1997 accident, docking procedures have become much more sophisticated. At the time, the Progress was under the manual remote control of a Russian astronaut on Mir. The docking of the new Nauka module was entirely autonomous.


And mission managers have had much practice in the 20-some years they have been managing the International Space Station. It was launched in pieces that had to be docked in orbit. Still, engineers are properly paranoid about avoiding even unlikely disasters.

When SpaceX was readying its first mission of its astronaut capsule to the space station — without crew aboard — Roscosmos raised a concern that if the Crew Dragon’s computer failed during approach, the capsule would crash into the space station. (SpaceX’s cargo capsules approached from a different direction so there was no possibility of a collision.)

NASA agreed to implement some precautions — closing hatches on the ISS and readying the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that carries astronauts to and from the outpost for a rapid evacuation, if necessary. The Crew Dragon docking proceeded without a hitch, and before the second Crew Dragon mission, the one taking NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley to the space station last year, SpaceX made more changes that eliminated even the unlikely possibilities of something going wrong.

Earlier this year, Russian officials said they were considering ending their participation in the International Space Station in 2025, which is when operations are currently set to end.

But U.S. officials are looking to extend the station’s life to 2028, or maybe 2030. They, so far, do not seem concerned about the Russian statements. The Russian news agency TASS reported that Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency, said that the exit would be gradual.

Decisions regarding space are rarely sudden.

Just three years ago, it was the United States and NASA that were saying they intended to leave ISS by the end of 2024. Space station supporters in Congress, like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, balked, and space agency officials subsequently made clear that this was not a hard deadline and that they would not leave until the commercial stations were operational.


A year later, the Trump administration shifted its space focus to sending astronauts back to the moon, and talk of withdrawing from or retiring the ISS ended.

Russian officials said they would work toward building a new Russian space station, although they did not say how the country’s chronically underfinanced space program could sustain one. With SpaceX’s Crew Dragon becoming operational, the Russian space program lost one of its main sources of revenue: NASA buying seats on Soyuz rockets.

NASA is negotiating an agreement with Russia in which NASA astronauts would continue to ride on the Soyuz spacecrafts in exchange for Russian astronauts going to space in SpaceX and Boeing capsules. In that arrangement, no money would be exchanged, but it would help ensure that astronauts become familiar with all of the equipment.

The announcement has also come as tensions have grown between the United States and Russia. In April, President Joe Biden formally blamed Moscow for hacking operations and placed sanctions on Russian entities. Russia has also entered into an agreement with China to work toward a lunar base in the coming decade.

Still, cooperation between the two countries in space goes back decades before the Soviet Union fell apart. Even in 1975, during the Cold War, NASA and Soviet spacecraft docked in orbit, and the astronauts greeted each other. Later, U.S. space shuttles flew to the Russian Mir space station, and several NASA astronauts lived aboard Mir.