NASA, Roscosmos Project Camaraderie As Crew Exchange Flights Near

NASA, Roscosmos Project Camaraderie As Crew Exchange Flights Near

Officials from NASA and Roscosmos projected an air of camaraderie today as the first Russian cosmonaut prepares to fly on the next Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station. Russians routinely flew on the U.S. space shuttle, but this is the first time on the newest U.S. crew space transportation system and comes amidst a tense geopolitical climate because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine plus new leadership at Russia’s space agency.

Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina at a NASA media briefing August 4, 2022, Johnson Space Center, TX. Screengrab.

NASA’s Kathy Lueders and Roscosmos’s Sergei Krikalev spoke with reporters today in advance of next month’s launch of Crew-5 on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Russian cosmonaut Anna Kikina is one of the four crew members on this flight, the first of three negotiated through the recently signed crew exchange or seat swap agreement. NASA’s Frank Rubio will fly to ISS on Russia’s Soyuz-22 a week or so earlier.

Lueders is NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations. Krikalev is one of Russia’s best known and experienced cosmonauts who for the past many years has headed Roscosmos’s human spaceflight program. In addition to his extensive flight experience on Russia’s Mir space station in the late 1980s, he flew on two space shuttle missions and was a member of the first ISS crew in 2000. He returned to the ISS for another long duration mission in 2005.

Sergei Krikalev, head of human spaceflight at Roscosmos, participating virtually in NASA’s Crew-5 media briefing, August 4, 2022. Screengrab.

Krikalev stressed that Russia has no plans to abruptly depart the ISS. Reiterating what new Roscosmos Director General Yuri Borisov said last week, Russia will fulfill its commitment to the ISS through 2024 and give the required one-year’s notice of any plans to end its participation after that. Comments Borisov made to Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier last week sowed confusion when they were misinterpreted as suggesting Russia would leave ISS “in” 2024 rather than “after” 2024.

Borisov was suddenly appointed to replace Dmitry Rogozin on July 15, the same day the crew exchange agreement was signed.

Like Borisov, Krikalev focused on the technical viability of the Russian-built modules on the ISS. The oldest, Zarya and Zvezda, launched in 1998 and 2000, are well past their warranties and microcracks in the hull already have been detected. Roscosmos and NASA insist they pose no danger to the crew. The question is whether they are harbingers of what Borisov painted as a potential avalanche of failures to come.  Consequently Russia does not want to commit to any specific timeline after 2024 until it completes an assessment of  the modules’ integrity.

The message today is that all of the ISS partners — the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries participating through the European Space Agency — are working together harmoniously and looking forward to future collaboration.

The partners hold regular meetings of the ISS Multilateral Coordination Board to coordinate plans and activities.  Lueders said the MCB just met on Friday and it was “heartening” to hear support “across the board” from all the partners “for us to continue to work together in space and continue to look at and plan together” for the future. She said the next MCB is in six to seven months where discussions will continue.

Meanwhile, the first crew exchange flights are more or less set.  NASA’s Frank Rubio will launch with two Russian colleagues on Soyuz MS-22 on September 21. Kikina will launch with NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada and JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata on Crew-5 on September 29, although NASA commercial crew program manager Steve Stich said the Crew-5 launch date “likely” will be “adjusted” because of its proximity to the Soyuz MS-22 launch.

Crew-5, L-R: Anna Kikina (Roscosmos), Josh Cassada (NASA), Nicole Mann (NASA), Koichi Wakata (JAXA). Credit: NASA

Mann, on her first spaceflight, will be the first woman to command a Crew Dragon mission. She, Cassada and Wakata all had been assigned to fly to ISS on Boeing’s Starliner, the competitor to Crew Dragon. Repeated Starliner delays led NASA and JAXA to reassign them to Crew Dragon.

Boeing completed its uncrewed test flight of Starliner in May. Next is the Crew Flight Test. Once expected by the end of this year, Stich said it probably now will slip into next year “a little bit.” Lueders promised an update at the end of this month.

Once operational, NASA plans alternating flights of Crew Dragon and Starliner, one each per year, throughout the lifetime of the ISS. ISS Program Manager Joel Montalbano explained that the crew exchange agreement is for one flight per year in 2022, 2023 and 2024 right now, but he expects it to be revised once Starliner is flying so there are crew exchanges on every flight to ISS.

ISS has been continously occupied by international crews since November 2000. At least one Russian and one American are always aboard to operate the Russian Orbital Segment and the U.S. Orbital Segment. The just-signed crew exchange agreement is to ensure that continues. NASA had been paying Russia to fly Americans on Soyuz when it had no other way to ferry crews back and forth, but now that Crew Dragon is available, the situation has changed. The new agreement is to fly each others’ crews on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upended almost all space cooperation with Russia. The ISS is an exception because it was built as an interdependent facility that would be extremely difficult to operate without both countries remaining involved.

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