Russia Launches Latest ISS Crew While Downscaling Its Long Term Plan-UPDATE

Russia Launches Latest ISS Crew While Downscaling Its Long Term Plan-UPDATE

Two Russians and an American destined for the International Space Station (ISS) launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard Russia’s Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft at 5:26:38 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today.  Docking is scheduled at 11:11 pm EDT tonight, about 6 hours after launch.   While the launch marks another success for Russia’s human spaceflight program, it comes amid reports that the Russian government just approved a 10-year plan that scales back its long term ambitions. [UPDATE:  Soyuz TMA-20M successfully docked with ISS at 11:09 pm EDT on March 18.]

The three crew members are Roscosmos’s Oleg Skriprochka and Alexey Ovchinin and NASA’s Jeff Williams.   They will join three crew members already aboard:  NASA’s Tim Kopra, the European Space Agency’s Tim Peake (U.K.), and Roscosmos’s Yuri Malenchenko.

This is the third long duration mission to the ISS for Williams, who will set a new U.S. record for cumulative time in space — 534 days — at the end of this 6-month stay.  NASA’s Scott Kelly, who just returned from 340 days aboard ISS, will retain the U.S. record for continuous time in space.

Today’s launch comes just a month before Russia celebrates the 55th anniversary of the launch of the first man into space. Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space on April 12, 1961, making one orbit of the Earth. 

Over the intervening decades, the Soviet/Russian human spaceflight program has focused on activities in low Earth orbit (LEO).   They never were able to send cosmonauts to the Moon, but launched seven operational space stations beginning with Salyut 1 in 1971.  Only one crew (Soyuz 11) successfully occupied that space station (another, Soyuz 10, was unable to enter the station after docking) and the three men tragically died during reentry.  The Soyuz 11 accident and the failure of the next two Soviet space stations (Kosmos 557 and Salyut 2) before they could be occupied set back the Soviet human space flight program.

But in 1974, successful space station and crew launches resumed with Salyut 3, followed by Salyut 4, Salyut 5, Salyut 6, Salyut 7, and Mir.  Mir was a modular space station.  The first module was launched in 1986 and five additional major modules were added over the next decade.  Mir was continuously occupied for about 10 of the years it was on orbit, with four cosmonauts staying aboard the facility for one year or more.   During the 1990s, Mir exemplified the new era of U.S.-Russian space cooperation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Seven Americans conducted long duration missions aboard Mir and nine space shuttle missions docked with it.

During that era Russia also joined the United States, Canada, Japan, and Europe in the ISS program and Russian cosmonauts have continued to fly aboard space stations to this day.  Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only vehicle capable of taking astronauts to and from the ISS and they also serve as “lifeboats” in the case the crew must evacuate in an emergency.

Despite that impressive past, the future is cloudy.  Russia has agreed with the U.S. proposal to extend ISS operations until “at least” 2024, but Russian space officials, like their counterparts elsewhere, aspire to human spaceflight beyond LEO.  In recent months, some Russian officials were boldly talking about a program to send cosmonauts to the Moon, but the economic effects of the drop in oil prices and sanctions by the United States and other countries following Russia’s actions in Ukraine are taking their toll. 

In late December, Russian news reports indicated that a proposal made in April by the head of Roscosmos for spending 2 trillion rubles through 2025 had been revised downward to 1.4 trillion rubes.  The Moscow Times reported yesterday that the Russian government approved the 1.4 trillion rubles, which it said converts to $20.5 billion.  That is government funding for the Federal Space Program 2016-2025 and may not reflect additional sums that may be available, such as revenue from launching foreign satellites or launching astronauts for NASA, but it is a modest amount — about $2 billion a year — compared to NASA’s $19 billion per year.   (The Moscow Times said yesterday that the request had been 3.4 trillion rubles, but the provenance of that number is not clear.) 

Details of what is included in the Federal Space Program 2016-2025 are not yet available, but at that level of resources, bold new programs seem unlikely.

The Russian government just converted its space agency, Roscosmos, into a
state corporation in the latest attempt to fix endemic problems that have resulted in a series of launch failures of several different rockets and delays in building a new launch site at Vostochny. 

As the 55th anniversary of the Gagarin launch approaches, other than its stated support for continuation of ISS through 2024, the future of the Russian human spaceflight program can only be said to be uncertain.

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