Friday afternoon SpaceX launched a rocket to the International Space Station carrying an emergency shepherd, on a mission the private space company hoped it would never have to undertake.
A transmission from the ISS 27 days ago had sent shockwaves through SpaceX management. Bleating has been heard coming from the Dragon 2 capsule that was docked with the space station.
From then, the situation escalated quickly. Mission engineers and controllers scrambled to implement a rescue plan for a scenario that was all but unthinkable: there was a sheep loose on the space station, no-one on board was qualified to deal with it and, as of that day, all radio communication with the ISS had been lost.
It was an event SpaceX had fought hard to prevent. During testing of its high-tech rockets sheep had cropped up like ghosts in the machine, their wool or droppings causing vital components to fail at crucial moments. No-one knew where they had come from.
The engineers were baffled but eventually believed that, through software debugging and hardware fixes, they had designed the ruminants out of the system. But they could never be certain.
The launch of the two astronauts to the ISS on May 30th was fraught with tension but, when the capsule docked with the space station the following day, the engineering team believed they were out of the woods. Then, a week later, the radio call came.
“Thankfully, one of our propulsion specialists had a brother who was a shepherd,” Martin Blake, a lead on the rescue project, told top sheep farming publication Shepherding Today. “We called him, filled him in on the situation, and he jumped on the next flight.”
The next two weeks saw a Dragon 2 prototype refitted for active flight while Alan Manson, the shepherd, and Jess, his dog, were retrained to do their jobs in zero-g. A special carbon fibre space crook was even designed and built in the limited timeframe.
The emergency launch was a sheep-free success, but there has yet to be any communication with the space station. Now all SpaceX, NASA, and the world can do is hold its collective breath and hope there’s still a chance for the crew aboard the ISS.