Roscosmos Seeks To Mend International Fences as Crew-5 Heads to ISS

Roscosmos Seeks To Mend International Fences as Crew-5 Heads to ISS

In July, Russia summarily terminated Dmitry Rogozin’s tenure as the head of its space agency, Roscosmos. His successor, Yuri Borisov, is sounding a much more reasonable tone than the bombastic Rogozin. Today the head of Roscosmos’s human spaceflight program, Sergei Krikalev, told U.S. reporters they are trying to repair Rogozin’s damage to international space relationships. A veteran cosmonaut well known to NASA and the international space community, Krikalev was at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for the launch of Crew-5, which includes the first Russian on a U.S. spacecraft in 20 years.

Crew-5 lifted off at 12:01 pm ET headed to the International Space Station. Docking is scheduled for 4:57 pm ET tomorrow.

Crew-5 lifts off from Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, October 5, 2022. Photo Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

The four-person international crew exemplifies the decades-long ISS partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 countries operating through the European Space Agency, with crew members from the United States, Japan, and Russia. The commander of ISS, ESA’s Samantha Cristoforetti, will welcome them when they arrive tomorrow.

Crew-5 arrives at Kennedy Space Center, October 1, 2022. L-R: Koichi Wakata (Japan), Nicole Mann (U.S.), Anna Kikina (Russia), Josh Cassada (U.S.). Photo credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Anna Kikina, the only woman in Russia’s professional cosmonaut corps, is making history as the first Russian woman to launch on a Crew Dragon and the first Russian on a U.S. spacecraft in 20 years. Before the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, Russians routinely flew on the U.S space shuttle, but none since Valeriy Korzun in November 2002.

Kikina is only the sixth Russian woman to make a spaceflight. Although the Soviet Union claimed the first woman in space (Valentina Tereshkova in 1963) and the first woman to make a spacewalk (Svetlana Savitskaya in 1984), women have been noticeably absent from Russian spaceflights. Only two other women from the Russian cosmonaut corps have flown: Yelena Kondakova who visited Russia’s Mir space station in 1994 on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and in 1997 was the only Russian woman to fly on the U.S. space shuttle, and Yelena Serova, who visited ISS on a Soyuz mission in 2014. Actress Yulia Peresild visited ISS on a “space tourist” mission last year.

By contrast, women are so common on NASA spaceflights it is hardly remarkable anymore.

However, Nicole Mann is the first woman to command Crew Dragon. A Marine colonel, this is her first spaceflight. Only two other woman have commanded U.S. space missions, both during the space shuttle era: Eilene Collins and Pam Melroy, who is currently NASA’s Deputy Administrator. Mann also is the first Native American woman to fly in space. She is a member of the Wailacki of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. John Herrington was the first Native American in space. He flew on STS-113 in November 2002. Somewhat ironically, that was the last U.S. flight with a Russian onboard.

At a post-launch Crew-5 press conference at KSC this afternoon, Krikalev joined a panel of NASA, SpaceX, and JAXA representatives. With U.S.-Russian relationships in dire straits following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and illegitmate assertion of control over four Ukrainian regions, his presence could only be taken as testament to both countries’ determination to keep the ISS out of the fray.

Crew-5 post-launch press conference, October 5, 2022. L-R: Megan Cruz (NASA), Kathy Lueders (NASA), Steve Stich (NASA), Joel Montalbano (NASA), Sarah Walker (SpaceX), Hisoshi Sasaki (JAXA), Sergei Krikalev (Roscosmos). Screengrab.

Krikalev is a veteran of six spaceflights, including the first crew to board the ISS on November 2, 2000 together with NASA’s Bill Shepherd and Russia’s Yuri Gidzenko. Earlier he flew on two U.S. space shuttle missions as part of the 1990s Shuttle-Mir program where U.S. space shuttles docked with Russia’s Mir space station. His last spaceflight was in 2005. In total he spent 803 days in space.

Sergei Krikalev, veteran cosmonaut and head of Roscosmos’s human spaceflight program, speaking at a NASA press conference after the Crew-5 launch, October 5, 2022. Screengrab

His close cooperation with NASA over three decades puts him in a unique position to maintain relationships between the two space agencies despite whatever is happening at higher levels between the two governments.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and the consequent deterioration of U.S.-Russian geopolitics, NASA has insisted that operations on ISS and with ground support teams are unaffected. Indeed, the two countries signed a crew-exchange or seat-swap agreement in July allowing American astronauts to launch on Russian spacecraft and Russian cosmonauts on U.S. spacecraft on a no-exchange-of-funds basis. NASA’s Frank Rubio flew to ISS on Russia’s Soyuz MS-22 on September 21 in exchange for Kikina’s launch on Crew Dragon today. Two more pairs of missions are planned for 2023 and 2024 and NASA hopes to extend the agreement through the lifetime of ISS.

The same day the seat-swap agreement was announced, Rogozin was replaced by Borisov. An ardent Putin supporter, Rogozin issued increasingly offensive tweets against the United States including a video implying Russia might separate its section of the ISS and maroon a U.S. astronaut there who was supposed to travel back to Earth on a Russian spacecraft. Alternatively he implied Russia would end its participation in ISS in 2024 when the current agreement expires and build a new Russian-only space station.

Rogozin’s relentless incendiary rhetoric was interpreted in the West as seeking to curry favor with Putin, who demoted him from Deputy Prime Minister for the aerospace and defense sectors to run Roscosmos in 2018. It may have worked. Rumors are Putin may appoint Rogozin to head the four regions of Ukraine over which he is asserting control.

Interestingly, Borisov is somewhat on the same career path. He was Deputy Prime Minister for aerospace and defense before his appointment to lead Roscosmos. But he has been much more measured in his comments, reassuring the ISS partners Russia would not precipitously walk away and Russian space scientists that he values international scientific cooperation. In a meeting at Russia’s Institute for Space Research yesterday, the 65th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, which opened the Space Age, he said “we value our partners” and “we try to be obligatory, reliable and predictable partners ourselves” according to a translation by Katya Pavlushchenko. (She posted a tweet thread summarizing Borisov’s comments including a link to them on the Roscosmos website, but the site only works intermittently.)

Russia has limited options for its cash-strapped space program, including space stations. The ISS was designed as an interdependent facility. The U.S. segment provides electrical power and the Russian segment provides propulsion to periodically boost its orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag and to avoid space debris. It is highly unlikely either could survive without the other.

The International Space Station. Mosaic of images taken by the departing Crew-2 on November 8, 2021. Credit: NASA

Krikalev’s participation in today’s press conference was another step towards repairing relationships. Asked directly if his and Borisov’s comments are part of a “concerted effort to ease tensions,” Krikalev succinctly responded with a smile: “The answer is yes.”

Krikalev also said that although Russia has a preliminary design of a new Russian space station, no decision has been made to build it. As for ISS, “we understand that it makes sense to keep flying … this excellent infrastructure” though Russia is still assessing how long its modules will remain technically viable. They have 15-year design lives and the first was launched in 1998. Overall, though, he said “we will stay in international partnerships” and future space station infrastructure also will be built with international partners.

Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Tom Stafford being interviewed by NASA’s Megan Cruz at the Crew-5 launch, October 5, 2022. Screengrab. 

Krikalev and NASA officials pointed to the long history of U.S.-Soviet/Russian cooperation in human spaceflight dating back to the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP).

During a period of U.S.-Soviet détente, a U.S. Apollo spacecraft docked with a Russian Soyuz for two days of joint operations. The mission built a long-lasting friendship between the crews, NASA’s Tom Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand and the USSR’s Aleksey Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov. Stafford, 92, a veteran of four spaceflights and commander of the U.S. part of ASTP, was at today’s launch.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson often cites ASTP as an example of how two adversaries can transcend their terrestrial differences and work together in space. The ISS appears to be proving that once again.

The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project crew: seated Deke Slayton (U.S.), Vance Brand (U.S.), Valeriy Kubasov (Soviet Union); standing Tom Stafford (U.S.), Aleksey Leonov (Soviet Union). Credit: NASA

Meanwhile, Crew-5 is on its way to ISS for a roughly 6-month mission. Already aboard are Rubio and his Soyuz MS-22 crewmates Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, and Cristoforetti and her three NASA Crew-4 companions Kjell Lingdren, Jessica Watkins and Bob Hines. Crew-4 and Crew-5 will have about a five-day handover before Crew-4 comes home. The exact date is weather dependent.

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