It’s Official — A NASA Astronaut Will Be Aboard Next Soyuz Launch

It’s Official — A NASA Astronaut Will Be Aboard Next Soyuz Launch

NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, today announced that NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will be aboard Soyuz MS-18 when it launches to the International Space Station (ISS) next month. The deal is not between NASA and Roscosmos, however, but through an intermediary, the U.S. company Axiom Space.

NASA officials have been saying since 2018 that they want to ensure at least one Russian and one American are onboard ISS at all times to operate their respective systems.

The ISS is partnership among the United States, Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan.  It is composed of a Russian Orbital Segment and a U.S. Orbital Segment (which includes modules and other hardware from Europe, Japan and Canada).

The dozens of international crews that have lived aboard ISS since November 2000 have always included Russians and Americans.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei. Credit: NASA

NASA relied upon Russia for crew transportation to and from ISS after the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 while two new U.S. “commercial crew” systems were developed by SpaceX and Boeing.  SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is now operational, while Boeing’s Starliner is still in testing.

Despite the availability of Crew Dragon, NASA wants to continue launching U.S. astronauts on Soyuz and, in return, launch Russian cosmonauts on the U.S. systems on a no-exchange-of-funds basis to make sure at least one person from each country is on board.

Roscosmos is balking at that quid-pro-quo arrangement. It has augmented its budget all these years with money from NASA, as much as $90 million per seat.  At the same time, NASA insists it will not pay to fly on Soyuz now that Crew Dragon has restored America’s ability to launch astronauts itself.

Until today, the Soyuz MS-18 crew formally was composed of three Russians — Oleg Novitsky, Pyotr Dubrov, and Sergey Korsakov — but photographs of Novitsky and Dubrov in training showed them wearing crew patches with Vande Hei’s name on them, not Korsakov’s. Today’s announcement is not surprising other than that it has taken this long to make it official considering the launch is on April 9.

They will replace two Russians and one American (Kate Rubins) who arrived last fall on Soyuz MS-17 and will return to Earth on April 17. The ISS has four other crew members right now — three Americans and one Japanese — who arrived in November on SpaceX’s Crew-1. They will return in late April/early May.

Current ISS crew (L-R): Kate Rubins (NASA), Victor Glover (NASA), Soichi Noguichi (JAXA), Sergey Ryzhikov (Roscosmos), Mike Hopkins (NASA), Shannon Walker (NASA), Sergey Kud-Sverchkov (Roscosmos). Credit: NASA

The Crew-1 replacements — two Americans, a Japanese, and a European — are scheduled to launch on SpaceX’s Crew-2 on April 22, but NASA is concerned that if the launch is delayed for any reason, and only Russians are on Soyuz MS-18, it could mean no Americans on the ISS.

Unable to get Russian agreement on the quid-pro-quo arrangement it had in mind, on February 9 NASA suddenly opened a solicitation for an “International Space Station Seat Exchange.”  A media report indicated it was aimed at Axiom, a company building a commercial  module that will be attached to the ISS.

Axiom’s President and CEO, Mike Suffredini, was NASA’s ISS Program Manager from 2005-2015.

In addition to the module, Axiom is in the business of sending private astronauts to ISS.  It signed an agreement with SpaceX to launch four next year on a Crew Dragon. That crew is composed of Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut, and three men who could afford the reportedly $55 million per-person cost.

Under today’s agreement, NASA will give Axiom a seat on one of its commercial spaceflights in 2023 and because “the services are determined to be of comparable value to both parties, the contract contains no exchange of funds.”

Today’s announcement therefore does not necessarily signify Russia’s agreement to launch U.S. astronauts at no cost. At the moment only Axiom and Roscosmos know what their arrangement is.  A NASA spokesperson told that “Axiom secured exclusive rights to purchase a seat on the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft,” declining to comment on what those arrangements might be. Roscosmos said it agreed to the deal “reaffirming its commitment to joint agreements and the spirit of joint use” of the ISS.  Axiom did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

By law, the United States is committed to operating ISS through 2024, though its advocates hope that will be extended at least until 2028.  Crews rotate on roughly 6-month schedules, so quite a few more Soyuz seats will be needed to meet NASA’s goal of ensuring at least one American and one Russian are on board.  Time will tell if today’s announcement is one-of-a-kind or the wave of the future. Or perhaps once Starliner is flying NASA may decide it and Crew Dragon are sufficient to ensure an American presence and Russia will need to make its own plans.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.