With three piloted boats in the back Spacex now flying astronauts representing not only NASA, but also the European and Japanese space agencies. But a glaring absence: Russia.
Despite months of ongoing negotiations, NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, have yet to agree on a system for swapping places when traveling to International space station… Under this scheme, NASA astronauts will continue to fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while Russian cosmonauts will board American commercial vehicles such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon… It’s a system that NASA has loudly endorsed while waiting for the first commercial vehicles to reach the launch pad, and it’s unclear if there is any significant disagreement slowing down negotiations.
“Of course, we will be honored to launch astronauts on the Dragon, but I do not understand any possible objections,” – SpaceX founder. Elon Musk he said during a press conference on April 23 following the successful launch of the Crew-2 mission. “Maybe it’s just a communication failure, I don’t know.”
Connected: SpaceX Crew-1 Astronaut Mission to the International Space Station in Photos
Meanwhile, NASA stresses that an agreement is in the works and that such international negotiations are simply slow in nature.
“We’re working on agreements right now,” said Kathy Luders, head of NASA’s Office of Research and Operations, at the same press conference. “People understand the importance of crew changes to support the ISS, and so we are working on it and reaching this agreement. I have found that sometimes it takes time to coordinate with a lot of people, so this is not the case. “It may happen as quickly as I want, but we are working on it.”
In early February, NASA Acting Administrator Steve Yurchik said Space.com that, in his opinion, Russia will need three Crew Dragon missions to perform safely before the cosmonaut is sent on board, but he hopes that an agreement will be reached in time that the Russian cosmonaut will fly on Crew-3, which will allow launch in October…
But this is hardly possible given how long it takes to prepare for the flight, Yurchik said during a press conference on April 21 in preparation for the launch of Crew-2.
“We have not completely abandoned the presence of an astronaut in the crew-3,” Yurchik said. “But at this point, given the schedule, it would be very, very difficult to go through all the training, fit the suit and make it for the cosmonaut from crew-3.”
NASA typically guides astronauts on missions 18 to 24 months prior to launch, but may speed up the process depending on the flying skills of the particular astronaut.
Currently, Crew-3 includes NASA astronauts Raj Chari and Tom Marshburn and European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Mathias Maurer. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon can hold up to seven astronauts at a time, but the capsules currently only have four seats. Meanwhile, SpaceX’s next mission, Crew-4, which is slated to launch in 2022, still has two empty seats.
In addition to Russian cosmonauts, ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti claims one of these three vacancies. ESA has said it will become its next astronaut to fly a commercial crew vehicle, but the agency did not specify if it will launch SpaceX or Boeing, which is also building an aerobatic vehicle for NASA.
Connected: From the moment of Yuri Gagarin’s launch to the present day, manned space flights have always been political.
Throughout their time on the International Space Station, the United States and Russia were the only two of five partners capable of delivering their own astronauts into orbit: crew members from Canada, Japan and countries belonging to the European Space Agency (ESA). ) always hitched a ride.
Russia used its workhorse Soyuz capsule with periodic upgrades to put the crew members into orbit. NASA, by contrast, entered the space station era with its fleet of reusable space shuttles and then spent nine years on earth, while commercial partners developed their own vehicles to transport crew members into and out of orbit.
At that time – and earlier, after two fatal shuttle failures – NASA astronauts flew into space aboard the Russian Soyuz. Meanwhile, more than a dozen astronauts have gone into space. shuttles before the program retired in 2011.
But as commercial vehicles evolve, NASA has stressed that it wants to ensure that the crew of each mission to the space station includes representatives from both major partner countries. This is because the station is split into two orbital segments, so if Russia or the United States lose their presence in orbit, their side of the laboratory will remain empty.
Therefore, NASA wants its astronauts to continue flying on Soyuz capsules, and Russian cosmonauts on new American commercial vehicles. Finally, these commercial flights begin. But so far Russia is hesitant to participate.
The first American commercial vehicle, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, made its first flight with a crew in May 2020. It is currently completing its first full six-month mission, Crew 1, which will conclude when four astronauts bring themselves out on the water on Saturday (May 1), or possibly later, if weather conditions interfere; its second such mission, launched last week, marked the first time two commercial ships with a crew have been docked simultaneously with a space station.
Second car Boeing CST-100 Starlinersuffers from delays as in December 2019 a bare-bones test flight was unable to reach the space station and landed earlier; at best, it will make a test flight with a crew at the end of this year.
For months, NASA has said it has been working with Russia to negotiate a swap agreement that will further advance astronaut flights. After decommissioning the space shuttle, NASA bought its space from Roscosmos in batches; most recently, NASA astronaut Keith Rubins launched in October a one-time seat that cost NASA $ 90 million…
Her chair was widely touted as the last thing NASA would buy from Russia before making a seat swap. Technically true: although NASA’s Mark Vande Hey launched aboard Soyuz earlier this month without a deal made, NASA has arranged its place with Texas-based Axiom Space pledging to fly to someone the company chooses in 2023 instead of paying money for a seat.
Connected: This is how NASA just booked the last trip to space on the Russian Union
But there is still no clear plan for what will happen next in Russian-American space flights.
Swap talks began under former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, who stepped down as head of the agency on January 20 when President Joe Biden took office. During a telephone conversation with Yurchik at the end of February, during which issues of organizing the crew’s flight were discussed, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin invited a NASA delegation to launch the Soyuz spacecraft on April 9. Roscosmos statement released at that time.
According to a separate Roscosmos statementRogozin met Ken Bowersox, NASA’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Research and Human Operations, in Kazakhstan in connection with the launch of the Soyuz Wande Hey and two Russian cosmonauts on April 9. NASA did not respond to a request for details about agency personnel who attended the launch.
Rogozin’s stance on swapping is unclear: he staunchly defended the long and surprisingly clean flights of the Soyuz capsule, especially when compared to the shuttle program, which NASA justified in part for reasons of reliability. Meanwhile, he expressed skepticism about the American launch programs and ahead of the Crew Dragon’s 2019 test flight without a crew. Russia expressed concern on the safety of the spacecraft systems when approaching the space station for docking.
NASA did not provide any details about the ongoing discussions or any potential problems between the two countries, only emphasizing its confidence that the discussions will be successful. “We are looking forward to the implementation agreement, the final approval of the State Department, the transfer of this project to the Russians and negotiations on the exchange of the crew,” Yurchik said on April 21.
Meanwhile, NASA right now cannot be sure even with what time frame it works.
The agency’s primary goal in swapping seats is to ensure that if something goes wrong with SpaceX’s flight program before the Boeing Starliner is ready to launch, the agency will still have at least one astronaut in orbit at any given time. But it’s not clear yet how long will Wande Hey stay in orbit…
A typical flight schedule suggests it will stay in space for a little over six months and return, possibly in October. But previous reports from Roskosmos suggested that the autumn launch of the Soyuz spacecraft to the station could bring two visitors for a short time, an actress and a director of a film that will be filmed in orbit. If that schedule continues, Wanda Hey will skip home’s next location and remain in orbit for nearly a year, easing NASA’s immediate staffing concerns for the space station.
Meanwhile, the agency is also awaiting its second flight from the US in the form of a Starliner. This car’s next mission will be launched not earlier than Augustwhen Boeing makes a second attempt at an unmanned test flight to the space station. The first such flight, launched in December 2019, did not reach the station and landed immediately after a software glitch that NASA and the company spent several months fixing.
If the second uncrewed flight goes smoothly, it’s time for the Starliner to conduct a test flight with a crew. The mission is currently on NASA’s September schedule, despite continuing delays in bare-metal launch.
Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.