Is NASA Finally Done Paying Russia for Trips to Space?

Is NASA Finally Done Paying Russia for Trips to Space?
Today's launch of a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Image: NASA/GCTC/Andrey Shelepin)

NASA just handed over $US90 ($126) million to the Russian space agency for launching astronaut Kate Rubins to the International Space Station. Assuming its commercial partners are able to deliver, this could mark the last time NASA purchases a seat on a Soyuz spacecraft.

It was 3-2-1 blastoff at 3:45 p.m. AEDT, October 14, when a Soyuz-2.1a rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Sitting in the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft were Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. These are the first three members of what will be the seven-member Expedition 64 crew, which will work aboard the International Space Station until April 2021.

The trio docked at the ISS around three hours later, arriving at 7:48 p.m. AEDT. If that seems awfully quick, you’re not wrong. To deliver the crew in such a timely fashion, Russian space agency Roscosmos employed a super-fast two-orbit approach. Back in the day, these trips to the ISS took upwards of 50 hours.

Starting in 2013, Russia trimmed this down to six hours with a four-orbit approach, and in 2018, the trip was knocked down to four hours with a two-orbit approach. The Russians have managed to curtail it further still, with today’s three-hour-and-three-minute trek, which is a new record (the previous record was three hours and 18 minutes, set by the Progress MS-17 cargo spacecraft on July 23, 2020). Roscosmos does this by launching its Soyuz rocket just prior to the ISS passing directly overhead.

The Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft docked at the ISS.  (Image: NASA Television) The Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft docked at the ISS. (Image: NASA Television)

Rubins, Ryzhikov, and Kud-Sverchkov joined NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who’ve been on ISS since April. Expedition 64 will officially kick off with the departure of the Expedition 63 crew, scheduled for October 20.

For Rubins, this is her second stint in space, having worked aboard the ISS in 2016. A medical researcher, Rubins is the first scientist to sequence DNA in space, according to NASA.

At some point in November, the other four members of Expedition 64 — NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker, and Victor Glover, along with Soichi Noguchi from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) — will launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, in what NASA is describing as the “first operational commercial mission to the space station, returning the capability to regularly launch humans from America for the first time since retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011.” The launch was supposed to happen on October 31, but SpaceX is currently reviewing a problem with its Falcon 9 rocket engine.

Given the recent success of the joint NASA-SpaceX Crew-2 mission, in which astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley were successfully delivered to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, it’s reasonable to ask why NASA just dished out $US90 ($126).25 million to Roscosmos for Rubins’ seat on a Soyuz spacecraft. NASA said it did so to “ensure the agency keeps its commitment for safe operations via a continuous U.S. presence aboard the International Space Station until commercial crew capabilities are routinely available.”

Indeed, NASA and SpaceX are still working on some final details to get Crew Dragon certified, including reviews of the spacecraft’s launching, docking, and return capabilities. The upcoming launch of the SpaceX capsule will mark a major step in making all of this seem routine. During briefings held late last month, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said the launch represents “a critical milestone in the development of our ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil — now sustainably.”

So does today’s launch of a Soyuz rocket signify the last time that NASA pays Russia for its astronaut delivery services? In an emailed statement sent to Forbes, NASA put it this way: “As the U.S. commercial crew capability becomes operational, astronauts and cosmonauts should resume flying together on our respective spacecraft, consistent with past practice.” And as Jeff Foust reports at SpaceNews, “NASA has not expressed any public interest in buying future Soyuz seats.”

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Of course, this could all change if Crew Dragon fails to be certified or if the aforementioned problem with the Falcon 9 rocket persists. Or — heaven forbid — something considerably more serious occurs. As for NASA’s other commercial crew partner, Boeing, it’s still working to remedy a host of problems revealed during that underwhelming launch of its CST-100 Starliner late last year. A crewed test of the Boeing spacecraft could happen in June 2021, but that assumes successful uncrewed tests in the coming months. Suffice to say, we shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves given some uncertainties with both SpaceX and Boeing.

And while NASA won’t be paying for seats on Soyuz for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t necessarily mean NASA astronauts won’t ever hitch a ride aboard these rockets ever again. According to SpaceNews, NASA has talked about “mixed crews,” in which NASA astronauts will continue to fly on Soyuz rockets, and Roscosmos cosmonauts will fly on commercial crew vehicles.

To be fair, however, Russia hasn’t really agreed to the concept, so it might not actually happen, despite it being a really good idea. Time will tell, especially if crewed launches of Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner become routine.