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Retired NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd told a House committee hearing that damage to the ISS is a “fairly serious issue”. It comes after Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Solovyov said the space station is facing irreparable failures. He also said small cracks had been discovered on the Zarya module, which could “begin to spread over time”.

Previous cracks on the ISS have led to air leaks and even pressure drops within modules, and therefore require urgent action to repair them.

Mr Shepherd, who served as Commander of Expedition 1, the first crew on the ISS told Congressional representatives that “there are probably other cracks we haven’t found yet”.

He added: “As far as I know, the Russian engineers and the NASA engineers – they’ve analysed it – they don’t exactly understand why these cracks are appearing now.”

The space expert said he had learnt more about the cracks in two meetings of NASA’s ISS Advisory Committee, which he recently joined.

He said they are “quite small and look like scratches on the surface of the aluminium plate”.

Mr Shepherd told the House committee that currently, the cracks are not long enough to pose a “serious problem,” but added that could change in time.

Russia has often raised concerns over hardware and has suggested it could leave the ISS after 2025.

The station was built in 1998 as part of a joint project between Russia, the US, Canada, Japan and several European countries and was originally designed for a 15-year lifespan.

It has now been in use for 22 years.

In September 2019, another space-station module, Zvezda, which provides living quarters for the cosmonauts, started leaking air.

Russian media previously reported that Mr Solovyov told the Russian Academy of Sciences: “There are already a number of elements that have been seriously damaged and are out of service.

“Many of them are not replaceable. After 2025, we predict an avalanche-like failure of numerous elements onboard the ISS.”

NASA has the funds to keep operating the ISS through 2024, and it’s aiming to get an extension from Congress to continue the station’s activities through 2028.

But Mr Shepherd said that NASA should first solve the mystery of the Zarya module’s new cracks.

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He added: “Getting to the bottom of this is a fairly serious issue.

“I don’t think the station’s in any immediate danger. But before we clear the station for another so many years of operational use, we should better understand this.”

The ISS will eventually be retired and push itself into the atmosphere to burn up.

After that, NASA does not want to build a new station, the agency is recruiting private companies to do that instead.

It’s currently evaluating about a dozen space-station proposals from various companies, with the aim of distributing $400million (£298million) among two to four of them.

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