Hours after a new Russian module docked at the International Space Station on Thursday, it unexpectedly fired its thrusters again and set the space station into an unexpected spin.
It took 45 minutes for mission controllers to get the situation back under control. NASA officials said there was no danger to the seven astronauts on the space station.
“Today was another day where we are learning how important it is to have an operational team that is prepared for every contingency,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator, said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The 23-ton module, named Nauka, adds a laboratory, an additional sleeping quarter and other capabilities to the Russian segment of the space station. After its launch last week, it encountered a series of propulsion problems that Russian controllers were able to resolve ahead of its rendezvous with the space station.
On Thursday morning at 9:29 a.m. Eastern time, the module gently docked with the outpost in orbit. Cheers could be heard over the audio feed as the operation was completed. Even that success was accompanied with some drama as the automatic docking system did not operate quite as expected, and Oleg Novitsky, a Russian astronaut aboard the station, had to take over manual control of Nauka to guide it the final few feet to its docking port.
“Oleg, congratulations, that was not an easy docking,” Russia’s ground control said to Mr. Novitskiy.
At about 12:34 p.m. Eastern time, Nauka upended the astronauts’ day when its thrusters unexpectedly started firing, twisting the orientation of the space station. The rate of spin reached a maximum of about half a degree a second and the station’s orientation twisted by 45 degrees.
If it had continued to spin at half a degree a second, the space station would have flipped around entirely in about 12 minutes.
Controllers fired other thrusters — first on Zvezda, another Russian module, then on a docked Russian Progress cargo vehicle — to push the space station back into its correct position by 1:30 p.m.
The torque of Nauka’s thrusters would have put strain on some the structures and the change in direction would have meant that the solar panels and antennas were not pointing in the correct direction. “You risk some things getting too warm or too cold,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA’s program manager for the space station.
Communications with the crew were disrupted twice — once for four minutes, then for seven minutes.
Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, will lead the investigation of what went wrong with Nauka while NASA engineers are evaluating whether the stress and strain caused any damage. “Right now, we haven’t noticed any damage to the I.S.S.,” Mr. Montalbano said.
He said the Russian controllers have sent commands to prevent any more inadvertent thruster firings.
The problem with Nauka led NASA to postpone the launching of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, which was scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Friday and dock at the space station on Saturday. Launch is now scheduled for Tuesday.
“We wanted to make sure we had some breathing room to fully assess the situation…