New Crew Brings ISS Complement Up to 10

New Crew Brings ISS Complement Up to 10

Three more crew members arrived aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, raising the complement to 10. It is just a temporary boost until next week when three of the long-term residents return to Earth, but for a facility about the size of a five-room house, it might seem a bit crowded.

Soyuz MS-18 lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on time at 3:42 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  The two Russian cosmonauts, Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, and one U.S. astronaut, Mark Vande Hei, arrived at the ISS about three-and-a-half hours later at 7:05 am EDT.

They were met by the Expedition 65 crew, comprised of three who arrived on Soyuz MS-17 on October 14, 2020 and four who came aboard on November 15, 2020 via SpaceX’s Crew-1 spacecraft.

The crew now includes five Americans, four Russians and one Japanese.

  • Soyuz MS-17: Roscosmos’s Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov and NASA’s Kate Rubins
  • Crew-1: NASA’s Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, and Soichi Noguchi from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)
  • Soyuz MS-18:  Roscosmos’s Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov, and NASA’s Mark Vande Hei

The ISS celebrated its 20th anniversary of permanent occupancy last November. International crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules have lived onboard for all that time conducting scientific research and learning how humans adapt to the physical and psychological demands of long-duration spaceflight in preparation for longer trips to Mars.

The Soyuz MS-17 crew will return to Earth next week. Crew-2 is scheduled to launch on April 22 to replace Crew-1, which will return to Earth about a week later. Crew-2 also is international, with Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur from NASA, Akihiko Hoshide from JAXA, and Thomas Pesquet from the European Space Agency (ESA).

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

Vande Hei was assigned to Soyuz MS-18 only a month ago through an unusual arrangement among Roscosmos, NASA, and the U.S. company Axiom Space.

NASA paid Russia to take its astronauts to and from ISS for more than a decade. After the space shuttle was terminated in 2011, it had no other way to get there. Now that Crew Dragon is operational, it no longer needs to fly its astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz, but wants to keep doing so. In parallel, it plans to launch Russians on Crew Dragon and Starliner.  The goal is to ensure crew members from both countries are cross-trained and there is always at least one Russian and one American aboard ISS to operate their own systems.

Russia reportedly agrees, but wants to continue being paid while NASA insists it should now be on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. The last Soyuz seat NASA paid Russia for is the one for Kate Rubins on Soyuz MS-17.

Last month, NASA announced it signed a contract with Axiom, not Roscosmos, for an “International Space Station seat exchange.” NASA gave Axiom a seat on a 2023 Crew Dragon or Starliner mission in exchange for Axiom getting the Soyuz MS-18 seat for Vande Hei.  Because “the services are determined to be of comparable value to both parties, the contract contains no exchange of funds.”

Axiom is building a commercial module that initially will be attached to ISS and later separate and become a free-flyer. The company, co-founded by Mike Suffredini, NASA’s ISS program manager from 2005-2015, also is in the business of flying “tourists” to the ISS.  It signed an agreement with SpaceX last year for a Crew Dragon flight now scheduled for January 2022.

The arrangement between Axiom and Roscosmos for Vande Hei’s seat on Soyuz MS-18 has not been made public.

The negotiations for all of this went down to the wire, with Vande Hei formally assigned to Soyuz MS-18 just four weeks ago. Vande Hei said he was in training with Novitsky, Dubrov, and a third Russian, Sergey Korsakov, for months, not knowing whether he or Korsakov would make the flight. When Korsakov will get to fly is unknown.

Russia also flies tourists to ISS, but suspended those flights while NASA required the seats. Soyuz can accommodate only three people. If a Russian tourist flight under consideration for this fall materializes, Vande Hei (and Dubrov) could end up on ISS for a year-long mission instead of six months. He is enthusiastic about such an outcome. He already spent 168 days on ISS on an earlier mission and made four spacewalks.

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