NASA confirms plan to take astronaut on next Soyuz mission

WASHINGTON – A NASA astronaut will fly a Soyuz mission to the International Space Station in April as the agency confirmed a quirky arrangement to get a seat on the Russian spacecraft.

NASA said on March 9 that Mark Vande Hei will join the Soyuz MS-18 mission crew at the station, launching on April 9. He will join Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov on the mission, staying at the station for six months.

Vande Hei will make his second trip to the space station. She was part of the Expedition 53 and 54 crews, and spent 168 days at the station from September 2017 to February 2018. She served as backup to Kate Rubins, the NASA astronaut who flew to the station on Soyuz MS-17 last October, with Novitsky and Dubrov, the other backup crew members.

The announcement came a month after NASA released a procurement synopsis stating its intention to get a seat on the Soyuz mission, which at the time had an all-Russian crew of Novitsky, Dubrov and Sergei Korsakov. NASA said at the time that it wanted the seat to minimize “the risks associated with any disruption in the presence of an American crew member on the ISS” if there are problems with the crew’s commercial vehicles, and that it would get the seat. ” providing similar services in kind “a direct purchase from Roscosmos.

Roscosmos, in its own statement on March 9, said it received a “serious request” from NASA for the seat. “NASA expressed its request only at the end of 2020, which means that the Russian side had to change the already confirmed and approved launch schedule,” he said. “Roscosmos has made this decision confirming its adherence to the joint agreements and the spirit of joint use of the International Space Station.”

When NASA released the request in February, NASA did not announce who would take the seat, and NASA officials declined to identify the astronaut in subsequent briefings, citing limitations in providing information during the ongoing acquisition. However, it was widely rumored that Vande Hei was the astronaut who would be assigned if a deal was reached for the Soyuz seat. Images released last month by Roscosmos showed Novitsky and Dubrov training for the mission, wearing flight suits that had a Soyuz MS-18 mission patch that also included Vandei Hei’s name.

In a separate statement on March 9, NASA said it signed a contract with commercial space flight company Axiom Space, which will provide NASA with the seat on that upcoming Soyuz flight. NASA, in turn, will give Axiom a seat on a future commercial crew mission to the station, likely in 2023.

“Because the services are determined to be of comparable value to both parties, the contract does not contain an exchange of funds,” NASA said in the statement.

NASA had not previously disclosed that it was working with Axiom Space, but the company, which organizes trade missions to the ISS and has plans to install private modules there, was rumored to be the middleman between NASA and Roscosmos. An Axiom official declined to comment on how the company obtained the Soyuz seat. An industry source familiar with the deal, speaking in the background, said the company bought the Roscosmos seat in a “purely commercial” deal.

NASA’s decision to search for the seat through a third party, and to do so weeks after launch, has caught the attention of the space industry. Even NASA’s approach to announcing the deal was unusual. The agency sent out a standard press release announcing Vande Hei’s assignment, promoting it on the home page of its website. The Axiom contract was not mentioned in that statement, but was mentioned in a separate statement posted elsewhere on NASA’s website.

NASA’s rush to get a Soyuz seat also attracted the attention of some members of Congress. Representatives Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) And Brian Babin (R-Texas), the senior members of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, respectively, sent a letter to NASA last month requesting details on “existing NASA agreements and future plans to access the International Space Station.”

The agency has long emphasized its desire for “mixed crews,” with NASA astronauts continuing to fly Soyuz missions and Roscosmos cosmonauts flying in commercial crew vehicles. Those seats would be swapped between NASA and Roscosmos.

Having an astronaut from NASA, or one from Canada, Europe or Japan, on every spacecraft that goes to the station “protects us from all kinds of contingencies,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for exploration and human operations, at a briefing on March 1 on the upcoming SpaceX Crew-2 commercial crew mission, now scheduled for launch on April 22.

NASA, however, has yet to complete an agreement with Roscosmos on the exchange of seats. “We are working to achieve the capability, and we are moving to have international agreements where we will be able to take our crew members in a Soyuz and have Rocsomos take their crew members to one of our two commercial crew providers. , and moving into this new era, “said Lueders. “It gives us the strongest logistics strategy.”

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