Russia’s Nauka Module Finally Takes Flight

Russia’s Nauka Module Finally Takes Flight

Russia’s Nauka science module is finally in orbit and on its way to dock with the International Space Station. As large as the other two main modules built by Russia and launched two decades ago, Nauka will expand living space, accommodate more scientific experiments, and has a robotic arm provided by the European Space Agency. Though some Russian officials intimate they may walk away from the space station partnership in 2024, Nauka’s arrival suggests otherwise.

Nauka lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on a Proton rocket at 10:58 am Eastern Daylight Time.

Docking is not for eight days in part because a port first must be freed.  If all goes according to plan, Nauka will dock on July 29 after Russia’s Progress MS-16 cargo ship departs. It is docked to the Pirs compartment, which in turn is docked to Russia’s Zarya module. Progress MS-16 will take Pirs with it when it leaves on Friday and Nauka will dock directly to Zarya.

At 20.2 Metric Tons (MT), Nauka is roughly the same size as Zarya and the Zvezda module built by Russia and launched in 1998 and 2000. They were among the first building blocks of the now 400 MT US-Russian-Japanese-European-Canadian orbiting facility. ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on 4-6 month tours of duty, with an occasional longer duration, for over 20 years.

The International Space Station;. Credtit: NASA

Zarya (Dawn), originally called the Functional Cargo Block (FGB), was built by Russia but paid for by NASA as part of the political arrangement for bringing Russia into the space station program after the end of the Cold War. Russia used spare parts to begin building Nauka, which is often referred to as FGB-2. The Multi-Purpose Laboratory Module (MLM) is yet another name for this module.

During its coverage of the launch this morning, NASA summarized what Nauka will add to ISS capabilities.

Nauka can generate oxygen for six people, has a second Russian toilet, and will add about 70 cubic meters of habitable volume including crew quarters for an additional person. It also has the 11-meter European Robotic Arm (ERA) provided by the European Space Agency.

The story of Nauka’s tortuous road to the launch pad is told by Anatoly Zak of Many years of the delay were due to contamination of the propulsion system and tanks by metallic particles during the module’s construction that required extensive repairs.

Its long journey is not yet complete, but hopefully Nauka will finally reach its destination a week from tomorrow.

The ISS partners are currently committed to joint operation of the ISS through 2024, though it is widely expected that will be extended to 2028 (30 years after the first module was launched) or 2030. However, in recent months, some Russian officials have been suggesting Russia will withdraw in 2024 and build its own space station. Russia also plans to send cosmonauts to China’s new space station.

The question is why would they launch a new module to ISS if they only intend to be there for three more years. The chatter about walking away is viewed more as an attempt to get NASA to resume payments to its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, which had been earning as much as $90 million per seat to ferry NASA astronauts to and from ISS. NASA does not need that now that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is operational.

NASA makes no secret of its hope that Russia will remain in the partnership. Despite the dramatically changed geopolitical environment since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections, and more recently stands accused of involvement in cyberattacks, ISS cooperation has been largely unaffected. NASA and Roscosmos work very closely together, day in and day out, from their respective mission control centers in Moscow and Houston to support the international crews aboard the ISS.  The facility is composed of a Russian Orbital Segment and a U.S. Orbital Segment (that includes modules from Europe and Japan and a Candian robotic arm) that are interdependent. In fact it is difficult to imagine how the ISS could continue to function without the Russian side, so hopefully Russia’s talk of leaving is just that.

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