Montalbano: ISS Team Still Working Together, Vande Hei Definitely Returning on Soyuz

Montalbano: ISS Team Still Working Together, Vande Hei Definitely Returning on Soyuz

NASA International Space Station program manager Joel Montalbano firmly asserted today that ISS operations are continuing unaffected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Two spacewalks, one tomorrow and another next week, the launch of three Russians on March 18, and the return of three current ISS crew members including NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei on March 30 are unchanged.

Joel Montalbano, ISS Program Manger, speaking to reporters from Johnson Space Center, March 14, 2022. Screengrab.

Speaking to reporters from Johnson Space Center this afternoon, Montalbano emphasized the professionalism of the ISS team here on Earth and in space.

“The teams continue to work together. Are they aware of what’s happening on Earth? Absolutely. But the teams are professional. The astronauts and cosmonauts are some of the most professional groups you’ll ever see.”

He added “there are no tensions with the team.”

Four Americans, one German, and two Russians are aboard the ISS right now. On Friday, they will be joined by three more Russians. Then on March 30, two of the Russians, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, and American Mark Vande Hei, will return to Earth in the Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft and land in Kazakhstan as planned. Dubrov and Vande Hei will have been in space for 355 days, a U.S. record for continuous duration in space for Vande Hei. In fact, he will surpass Scott Kelly’s 340-day record tomorrow.

The Expedition 66 crew now aboard ISS, L-R: Raja Chari (NASA), Thomas Marshburn (NASA), Matthias Maurer (ESA/Germany), Anton Shkaplerov (Russia), Pyotr Dubrov (Russia), Kayla Barron (NASA), and Mark Vande Hei (NASA). Dubrov and Vande Hei traveled to the ISS together on Soyuz MS-18 on April 9, 2021 and will return along with Shkaplerov on Soyuz MS-19 on March 30, 2022, landing in Kazakhstan. The other four crew members are travelling on a U.S. Crew Dragon.

As professional as the astronauts, cosmonauts, and ISS operations teams may be, the same cannot be said for the head of the Russian space program Dmitry Rogozin. His offensive tweets since Russia invaded Ukraine have included insinuations that Russia would separate its part of the ISS from the U.S. segment and let it reenter over the United States, Europe, China or India. He is Director General of Roscosmos, NASA’s counterpart although it is a state corporation, not a government agency. Roscosmos created a video and shared it on social media showing Dubrov and Shkaplerov waving goodbye to Vande Hei and undocking without him, spurring questions about whether Vande Hei is in fact coming back on Soyuz MS-19.

I can tell you for sure Mark is coming home on that Soyuz. We are in communication with our Russian colleagues. There is no fuzz on that. The three crew members are coming home, that’s Anton, Pyotr, and Mark. Again, we’ve worked that with no issues. … I can tell you we’re ready. Our Roscosmos colleagues have confirmed that they’re ready to bring the whole crew home.

The ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules for more than 21 years. The first crew, one American and two Russians, opened the hatch from their Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft into the nascent ISS on November 2, 2000.

Soyuz spacecraft launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and land on the steppes of that country near the town of Dzhezkazgan.

Map source: CIA World Factbook. The Baikonur Cosmodrone is the site of all Russian crew launches. Crew landings take place near Dzhezkazgan, about 450 kilometers (280 miles) northeast of Baikonur in the direction of Karaganda.

As usual, NASA personnel will fly to the landing site on a NASA airplane to meet Vande Hei, tend to any immediate medical needs after almost one year in weightlessness, and fly back to the United States. Montalbano said about 20 people will be on the plane.

Rogozin’s threats and the overall geopolitical situation are raising questions about whether Russia and the other ISS partners — the United States, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency — could go their separate ways.

Last week NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders stressed that ISS was designed with “joint dependencies” and it would be very difficult to operate it without Russia.

Montalbano reiterated that today. “Nothing has changed in the past three weeks.” The mission control centers in Moscow and Houston are operating “successfully, flawlessly, seamlessly.”

The interdependency can be seen in how the football-field sized facility is put together.

Configuration of the ISS showing which countries provided which hardware. Note that the Functional Cargo Block (also known as FGB or Zarya) is a U.S. module even though it has a Russian name. It was built by Russia, but paid for by the United States. Not shown is Russia’s Prichal multi-node docking port launched in November 2021 apparently after this illustration was most recently updated. Prichal is attached to the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM, also known as Nauka). Russia’s Service Module is also known as Zvezda, MRM-1 as Rassvet, and MRM-2 as Poisk. Illustration credit: NASA

The Russian Service Module, also known as Zvezda, and Progress cargo resupply ships have the propellant needed to move the ISS to avoid space debris, to reboost the ISS’s altitude to compensate for atmospheric drag, and sometimes to keep its attitude properly oriented. NASA’s Control Moment Gyros are usually used for attitude control, but must be periodically desaturated. The Russian propulsion systems take over during that time. Russia gets electrical power for its modules largely from NASA’s massive solar arrays and NASA’s communications systems augment those on the Russian side.

“It’s a team. It’s not really an operation that you can just separate and go your own way because of the interdependency that was designed from the beginning.”

That interdependency is driving NASA’s effort to seal a crew exchange deal with Russia to ensure at least one American and one Russian are always aboard. That has always been the case, but from 2006 until now NASA paid Russia to fly Americans to the ISS on Soyuz. For most of those years, it was the only way NASA could get astronauts up and back because the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. Now, however, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is flying and NASA no longer is dependent on Russia and is not willing to pay. Instead, it wants to swap personnel as it did early on with Americans flying on Soyuz and Russians flying on U.S. spacecraft (originally the shuttle, now SpaceX’s Crew Dragon) on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

After years of negotiations, the two sides were close to signing that agreement before Russia invaded Ukraine. Montalbano did not give a specific update on the paperwork, but said “at this time, we still plan to work the crew swap” this fall. Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina — the only woman in Russia’s professional cosmonaut corps — is scheduled to fly on the SpaceX Crew-5 mission and an American on the next Soyuz.

Three Russians instead of an international crew are on the Soyuz flight this Friday because the deal was not in place in time. It is very rare in the ISS era to have an entirely Russian crew on Soyuz.

From all appearances, the ISS is indeed continuing its 90-minute loops around the globe as though the world below hasn’t changed. It’s a busy place.

  • March 15 (tomorrow): spacewalk by NASA astronauts Kayla Barron and Raja Chari
  • March 18: Soyuz MS-21 launch and docking, with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev, and Sergei Korsakov
  • March 23: another NASA spacewalk (participants not yet chosen)
  • March 30: Soyuz MS-19 landing, with Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov and American Mark Vande Hei
  • March 30: Axiom-1 launch with four private astronauts including Michael López-Alegria (a former NASA astronaut now working for Axiom Space) and three wealthy entrepreneurs — Larry Connor (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada), and Eytan Stibbe (Israel). They will be in space for 10 days, of which 8 are on the ISS.
  • April 15 (no earlier than): Crew-4 launch with three NASA (Kjell Lindgren, Robert Hines, Jessica Watkins) and one ESA (Samantha Cristoforetti) astronauts
  • April ?: Landing of Crew 3 [NASA said today it would be “a few days” after Crew-4 arrives]
  • May ?: Boeing Starliner uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2
A mosaic of the International Space Station using images taken by the departing Crew-2 crew on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour on November 8, 2021. Credit: NASA

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