Rogozin, Jurczyk Talk, But No Announcement from NASA – UPDATED

Rogozin, Jurczyk Talk, But No Announcement from NASA – UPDATED

The heads of NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, spoke via telecon today. NASA is trying to get Russia to agree to launch U.S. astronauts on its Soyuz spacecraft, beginning in just a few weeks, to the International Space Station (ISS) on a no-cost basis. Instead, NASA would trade launching Russian cosmonauts on the new U.S. commercial crew systems with the goal of ensuring that least one American and one Russian are always aboard ISS.  No announcement was made as to whether Russia has now agreed to that plan.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk and Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin discussed a range of issues according to a summary posted by Roscosmos.  NASA did not comment by press time.

Rogozin congratulated NASA on the Mars Perseverance landing and Jurczyk wished Rogozin best wishes on the ExoMars 2022 mission. The two also discussed plans for earth observation studies. But it was the final sentences that caught attention.

The parties also touched upon the arrangement to maintain continuous presence of Russian and American crews at the ISS.

Concluding the call, Dmitry Rogozin invited NASA delegation to visit the Baikonur Cosmodrome to see the crewed spacecraft launch in April 2021.

NASA paid Russia to launch its astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft from 2006-2020. The last purchased seat was for Kate Rubins to fly up to ISS in October 2020 and return to Earth this April.  The price was $90 million.

NASA was dependent on Russia to ferry crews back and forth after the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011, but that ended with the certification of a new U.S. crew space transportation system, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, last fall and its first operational launch, Crew-1, in November. Boeing’s Starliner, the other commercial crew system, is expected to be ready later this year.

Three years ago, NASA told Congress that once the U.S. commercial crew systems were available, NASA no longer would pay Russia, but wanted to reach agreement on continued flights of astronauts on Soyuz, and cosmonauts on the U.S. systems, throughout ISS’s lifetime. The ISS has a Russian segment and a U.S. segment (which includes modules built by Japan and Europe and Canada’s robotic arm) and there is a general consensus that at least one American and one Russian need to be there to monitor and fix their systems with support from their respective ground support teams.

Roscosmos has not agreed to that quid pro quo arrangement so far. Its cash-strapped space program has relied on a steady stream of U.S. dollars for Soyuz seats as well as purchases of RD-181 rocket engines for the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket to supplement its budget. Now both are ending.

Two weeks ago, NASA suddenly opened a solicitation to obtain a seat on the Soyuz MS-18 flight scheduled to launch in a few weeks on April 10. Right now, the crew is composed of three Russian cosmonauts.

Although Crew Dragon is operational — one is docked with ISS right now and another is scheduled for launch on April 20 — NASA is concerned some issue could arise delaying the flight and result in no Americans aboard the ISS.

Soyuz MS-17 approaches the International Space Station carrying Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov and NASA’s Kate Rubins, October 14, 2020. Credit: NASA

Rubins is scheduled to return to Earth in April with her two Russian colleagues in Soyuz MS-17. The three Americans and one Japanese who arrived on SpaceX’s Crew-1 flight are due to return home around May. The Crew Dragon spacecraft has an on-orbit lifetime of six months so even though astronauts can remain in space for longer periods of time, the spacecraft cannot.  If Crew-2 did not launch before Crew-1 had to return home, only the three Russians on Soyuz MS-18 would be aboard.

The solicitation NASA opened on February 9, with a 10-day period to respond, was for an “International Space Station Seat Exchange.” The Verge reported that NASA was planning to use that solicitation to buy the seat via a U.S. company, Axiom, that has an agreement with SpaceX to send four astronauts to ISS early next year.

The top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its space subcommittee, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), wrote to NASA on Monday asking for a briefing on what NASA is planning to do, why and how.

Rogozin’s invitation for NASA officials to be at the launch strongly suggests that an American will be on the crew.

The morning after this article was originally posted, a NASA spokesperson replied to’s request for comment by saying Jurczyk and Rogozin “held a productive introductory call” where they discussed “cooperation, including on the International Space Station, as well as updates on developments at the two agencies, including plans for activities in cislunar space and on the Moon.”

As to the question of whether an American will be on Soyuz MS-18, the spokesperson said that while the deadline for offerors to respond to the February 9 solicitation has passed, it is “on ongoing synopsis that is procurement sensitive,” so could offer no further information at this time.

If a NASA astronaut is to fly, the agency has “candidate crew members who have been recent backups on Soyuz crews that can be ready in time for this mission.”

Rumors are that Mark Vande Hei, who was Rubins’ backup for Soyuz MS-17, is the likely candidate, but NASA demurred on that question: “Per our policy, we do not announce those crew until a formal assignment has been made.”



Note: This article has been updated.

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