Despite Recent Tensions, NASA and Roscosmos Sign Seat-Swap Agreement

Despite Recent Tensions, NASA and Roscosmos Sign Seat-Swap Agreement
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches on October 16, 2021. (Photo: SpaceX)

It’s been a rocky few months for U.S.-Russia relations, with discord between the two nations arising both on the ground and in space. Despite the current bad feelings, NASA and Roscosmos have finalised an agreement in which NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts will fly aboard each other’s spacecraft.

Announcement of the new agreement came on Friday, July 15, the same day that Dmitry Rogozin was dismissed from his position as director general of Roscosmos. It’s not clear if the dismissal of the ornery space chief is connected to the new deal, but it does suggest that the two space agencies are finding ways to work together despite tensions arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting economic sanctions.

Anna Kikina at Russia's Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre on July 8, 2022. The Russian cosmonaut is scheduled to fly aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon as part of a recent seat swap arrangement.  (Photo: Roscosmos, AP)Anna Kikina at Russia’s Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre on July 8, 2022. The Russian cosmonaut is scheduled to fly aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon as part of a recent seat swap arrangement. (Photo: Roscosmos, AP)

For the agreement, U.S. astronauts will ride aboard Soyuz capsules just like they did prior to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and the introduction of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. On the flip side, Russian cosmonauts will get to strap themselves into a Crew Dragon for the very first time. The first of these four integrated crew flights, in which no funds will be exchanged between the space agencies, is scheduled for September. NASA/SpaceX and Roscosmos will be responsible for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS and provide full mission support, including training, flight operations, landing, and rescue services, according to a NASA press release.

The reason for the integrated crews is to maintain safe operations of the orbital outpost, according to NASA. ISS operations rely on contributions from five space agencies, the other three being the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

“Flying integrated crews ensures there are appropriately trained crew members on board the station for essential maintenance and spacewalks,” NASA said in its statement. “It also protects against contingencies such as a problem with any crew spacecraft, serious crew medical issues, or an emergency aboard the station that requires a crew and the vehicle they are assigned to return to Earth sooner than planned.”

NASA’s Frank Rubio, along with Roscosmos’s Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin, are scheduled to launch aboard Soyuz MS-22 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on September 21. NASA’s Loral O’Hara is slated to launch aboard Soyuz MS-23 in spring 2023, on a mission that will include cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub.

Anna Kikina of Roscosmos, along with NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada and JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata, will take part in NASA’s SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the space station, which will blast off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre in either September or October. Kikina, 35, is currently Russia’s only woman astronaut, and she’ll be the first Russian woman to visit the ISS in eight years, according to the government-run Russia Beyond.

Cosmonaut Andrei Fedyaev, along with NASA astronauts Steve Bowen and Woody Hoburg, will take part in NASA’s SpaceX Crew-6 mission, which is targeted for a launch in spring 2023.

So it’s apparently business as usual in space, even though things are very far from usual on the ground. NASA seems willing to overlook Russia’s indiscretions, such as using the space station to promote its ongoing invasion of Ukraine, for the sake of maintaining normal and safe operations in low Earth orbit. It makes sense, but it still leaves a bitter taste.