NASA, Roscosmos Agree on One More Soyuz Seat

NASA, Roscosmos Agree on One More Soyuz Seat

NASA signed a deal today to pay its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, for one more seat on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take a NASA astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.  NASA has been paying Russia to ferry crews back and forth for years, but with new U.S. systems getting ready to fly, the era of paying for those seats is coming to an end.  In the future, Americans will still fly on Soyuz, and Russians on the U.S. systems, but the plan is there will be no exchange of funds.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  That chapter of the U.S. human spaceflight program hopefully will end very soon. The crewed flight test of SpaceX’s commercial crew system, Crew Dragon, is scheduled for May 27.  If all goes well, operational flights will begin later this year.

Until then, though, only one U.S. crew member, and two Russians, will be aboard the ISS, sharply limiting how much scientific research can be conducted there — the raison d’être of the ISS.  Typically there are six people aboard and in the future there will be seven. But until the U.S. systems are operational, there can be only three because Russia cut in half the number of Soyuz launches per year, from four to two, in anticipation of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner becoming available.

Delays in that timetable created the current situation where NASA’s Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos’ Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner are shouldering the full workload.  ISS is maintenance-intensive and with only three people on board, it is a full time job.

NASA decided to buy one more seat on a Soyuz scheduled for launch in October just in case there are any more delays.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the NASA Inspector General, and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel have been urging NASA to do just that.

The deal signed today is for NASA to pay Roscosmos $90,252,905.69.  That covers the cost of training and preparation for flight, launch, flight operations, landing, crew rescue (the ability to evacuate the crew if an emergency arises on ISS), and limited cargo delivery.  Since putting a U.S. astronaut on the flight means a Russian crew member will have to step aside, NASA also agreed to transport 800 kilograms of Russian cargo to ISS over the next 2.5 years on U.S. commercial cargo flights.

NASA and Roscosmos have maintained for years that it is essential to have at least one American and one Russian aboard ISS at all times to operate the complex. Consequently, they want Americans to continue launching on Soyuz and Russians on the U.S. systems to guard against any contingencies that might arise. The idea is that those will be barter agreements with no exchange of funds, however.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency (ESA).  It is divided into the Russian Operating Segment (ROS) composed of Russian-developed modules and hardware, and the U.S. segment (USOS) composed of modules and hardware provided by NASA and its Japanese, Canadian and European counterparts.

Despite the fractious relationship between the United States and Russia since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the ISS has remained an area where the two countries continue to cooperate effectively.

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