NASA Wants A Soyuz Seat This Spring As Backup Plan

NASA Wants A Soyuz Seat This Spring As Backup Plan

NASA wants to make arrangements to use a seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft this spring in case anything goes awry with the U.S. commercial crew vehicles.  SpaceX’s Crew Dragon delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station in the fall and another flight is scheduled for April 20, but the agency wants to ensure “dissimilar redundancy” by having the option to use Soyuz.  It plans to acquire it on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

NASA paid Russia to transport astronauts to and from the ISS for over a decade and once the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011, it was the only way up and back.  The price rose steadily over those years, topping out at $90 million.

The commercial crew systems developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (Starliner) will relieve NASA of its dependence on Russia, but NASA officials have said for years that the long term plan was to continue launching U.S. astronauts on Soyuz and to launch Russian cosmonauts on the commercial crew systems to ensure cross-training for safety reasons.  Bill Gerstenmaier, then head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, told a congressional committee in January 2018 that NASA and its Russian counterpart Roscosmos had agreement in principle “and are determining appropriate means to implement this plan.”  The idea was that neither side would pay, basically swapping seats on each other’s systems.

Three years later, Russia still has not agreed.  Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said several times during his tenure that discussions were ongoing.

The International Space Station in 2018. Credit: NASA

This evening, NASA released a solicitation for an International Space Station Seat Exchange with offers due in 10 days.

In a statement, NASA’s ISS Acting Program Director Robyn Gatens said it is in line with NASA’s desire to have a back-up plan — “dissimilar redundancy” — to guard against problems that might develop.  “We look forward to the next crew rotation on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 mission, and we’re looking to ensure we can continue to maximize our use of the station and minimize any risk by flying a U.S. astronaut on the upcoming spring Soyuz by providing in-kind services.”

The last seat NASA purchased from Russia was for Kate Rubins to travel up and back on Soyuz MS-17.  She and two Russian colleagues, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, arrived at ISS on October 14, 2020 and are scheduled to return to Earth on April 17. Soyuz MS-18 is scheduled for launch on April 10 and is the flight NASA now wants a seat on.

The Soyuz MS-17 crew was joined by three NASA astronauts and one from Japan on the first operational flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Crew-1, on November 16.  Their replacements, two Americans and one each from Japan and Europe, are scheduled for launch on Crew-2 on April 20.  Boeing’s Starliner system is still in the testing phase with an uncrewed test flight coming up next month.  A crewed test flight could take place this summer and the first operational mission by the end of the year if all goes well.

NASA noted the progress of the SpaceX and Boeing U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV) systems, but said getting an additional Soyuz seat “assures the back-up capability of at least one U.S. crew member aboard the International Space Station in the event of a problem with either spacecraft.”  The solicitation expands on the reasoning.

NASA has no remaining crew seats on Soyuz.  While the United States has the ability to deliver crew members/USG astronauts to the ISS, obtaining this supplemental capability minimizes risks associated with any interruption in U.S. crew member presence on ISS.  There is one established U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV) capability in the early phases of operation, which is scheduled to fly this spring, and a second USCV provider in the late stages of development.  Experience has shown that new launch capabilities may encounter unanticipated delays or difficulties maintaining initial schedules.  Even with no delays of the next USCV launch to ISS, a contingency undock of that USCV could occur due to unforeseen circumstances.  A USCV crew must depart together in their sole return vehicle.  Should no supplemental crew transportation capability be acquired, the result could be a period wherein there is no U.S. presence on the ISS, disrupting  ongoing research and technology development in the United States On-orbit Segment (USOS), in addition to putting the ISS itself at risk since trained USG crew members are necessary to maintain and operate hardware and to conduct emergency Extravehicular Activities (EVAs) if necessary to perform repairs.

At the moment, Soyuz MS-18 is slated to deliver three Russian cosmonauts.  It is getting ready to launch a long-delayed science module to ISS, Nauka, and having three instead of two cosmonauts would allow greater utilization of its capabilities.

Conceptually, one of the Russians on Soyuz MS-18 and someone assigned to Crew-2 could swap places, though there is little time left for training.  Roscosmos cosmonauts have not trained for Crew Dragon although three of the four Crew-2 crewmembers have flown on Soyuz: commander Shane Kimbrough (NASA) and mission specialists Akihiko Hoshide (JAXA) and Thomas Pesquet (ESA).  NASA’s Megan McArthur, Crew-2’s pilot, has flown only on the U.S. space shuttle.


This article has been updated.

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