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The ISS Said an Astronaut Was in 'Critical Condition' on Its Radio. It Forgot to Say It Was a Drill

  • On Wednesday night, the International Space Station radio caused a significant and unintentional stir.

  • NASA mistakenly broadcast a drill for a medical emergency involving an astronaut with decompression sickness.

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On Wednesday night, a user on the NASASpaceFlight.com forum alerted others about something “very odd and disturbing” happening on the International Space Station (ISS). The message led to a wave of speculation since it took NASA an hour and a half to provide an explanation.

An alarming conversation. At 6:30 p.m. ET, while the Expedition 71 crew members were asleep, the ISS' public radio communications channel broadcast a conversation between a NASA controller and a doctor on duty.

The two specialists were discussing a commander aboard the ISS who was in serious condition due to decompression sickness (DCS) and required an emergency evacuation.

Decompression sickness. Also known as “the bends,” DCS is a very painful and potentially life-threatening condition that can occur when a person experiences a rapid reduction in environmental pressure.

It’s caused by the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood, which is why astronauts breathe pure oxygen before doing a spacewalk. This process removes nitrogen from their blood system before they put on the extravehicular activity suit, which is set to a much lower pressure than the ISS.

“A hospital in Spain.” The doctor on duty recommended getting the astronaut into his spacesuit and providing him with pure oxygen as soon as possible. The evacuation procedure suggested involved the astronaut and his crewmates from the Crew-8 mission returning to Earth on an emergency flight aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

The planned splashdown was in the south of Spain, possibly to enable the Naval Station in Rota to carry out the rescue. At one point, the medical specialist recommended transporting the astronaut to a hospital in San Fernando, in the Spanish province of Cadiz.

“I did find a hospital in Spain that has critical care facilities and hyperbaric treatment facilities. […] That is San Carlos, S-A-N-C-A-R-L-O-S, in San Fernando, […] and that’s in the province of Cadiz, C-A-D-I-Z, in Spain.”

Extremely real touches. Clips and transcripts of the leaked conversation quickly surfaced on social media, causing widespread concern. You can listen to the entire conversation in the video below:

Some experts speculated that the conversation was a drill, but details within the dialogue made it feel very realistic, especially when the doctor mentioned being stuck in traffic on her way to the mission control center and explained that there were no other surgeons on duty.

NASA later confirmed that the conversation was part of a drill. After 8:00 p.m. ET on Wednesday, the official ISS X account stated that there was no emergency onboard, and the U.S. crew members were asleep.

The audio that had been mistakenly broadcast on a public channel was part of ground crew drills for a potential case of decompression sickness. The drills were in preparation for a spacewalk scheduled for that day in Houston.

NASA’s statement was seen as necessary after an hour and a half of speculation, as there were concerns that the families of astronauts on Expedition 71 might be unnecessarily worried. This was particularly true for the relatives of Crew-8 mission commander Matthew Dominick, the fictional sick man.

Image | NASA

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