NASA gets a free ride on a Russian rocket


A Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS.

A Soyuz capsule docked to the ISS.
Picture: POT

An unusual arrangement involving NASA, the Russian space agency and a commercial broker will see an American astronaut fly to the ISS in a cashless exchange aimed at preserving a tradition dating back more than 20 years.

NASA normally pays around $ 90.25 million for a seat aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, but the agency is becoming increasingly reluctant to hand out these large sums of money now that its commercial crew program is over. officially off Earth. That said, NASA paid that exorbitant fee last October to transport American astronaut Kate Rubins to the space station, in what was speculated to be the last time American taxpayers would pay Russia for space travel.

Once again, NASA needs to send an astronaut into space to “ensure that the agency maintains its commitment to safe operations through a continued US presence aboard the International Space Station until the commercial capabilities of the crew are available from routinely, “as the space agency Explain.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei.
Picture: POT

Since November 2000, the ISS has hosted at least one American and one Russian at the same time. Not wanting to break that tradition and avoid paying Roscosmos its usual flight fare, NASA has struck a special agreement with the Russian space agency and Axiom Space, a commercial company based in Houston, Texas.

Under the new arrangement, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei join the Soyuz MS-18 mission, which is scheduled to launch on April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Vande Hei, along with Russian cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov will join the Expedition 64/65 crew aboard the ISS. In exchange for this, Axiom Space will return the favor by providing a seat for a Russian cosmonaut. sometime in 2023.

The current ISS crew will return to Earth in April and May, and the SpaceX Crew-2 mission is scheduled for April 22. By launching Vande Hei a little earlier, NASA “will ensure a continued presence at the station if Crew-2 mission launch is delayed or an event occurs while Crew-2 is in orbit that requires a premature return.” according to the space agency.

NASA has needed Russia to send its astronauts into space since the Shuttle was retired in 2011. The agency’s commercial crew program seeks to regain this capability; SpaceX, with its CrewDragon, has already delivered, but Boeing’s Starliner is woefully overdue and plagued with problems.

The Soyuz MS-18 was supposed to be an all-Russian affair. This late request and the resulting arrangement meant a disruption to the Russian mission, meaning that Russian cosmonaut Sergey Korsakov became the stranger.

“The change in the composition of the crew came as a result of a sincere request from the US side,” according to Roscosmos. “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.” To which the agency added: “Roscosmos has made this decision confirming its adherence to joint agreements and the spirit of joint use of the International Space Station.”

In February, NASA publicly announced its desire to get on board the mission. and to provide “Similar services in kind” instead of sending your regular wire transfer to Roscosmos.

That something was in the works isn’t much of a surprise, as Novitsky and Dubrov’s training photos showed them wearing a mission patch with Vande Hei’s name on it, like Space Policy Online. reports. NASA astronaut Anne McClain will later replace cosmonaut Dmitry Petelin as backup in case Vande Hei is unable to join MS-18 for any reason.

As noted, the deal is done through an intermediary, Axiom Space. The US private company is currently building a crew module for the ISS, with plans to eventually launch private astronauts To space. Details of the company’s agreement with NASA and Roscosmos have not been disclosed.

Like Roscosmos, Axiom is expected to organize transportation to the ISS and return to Earth, and to provide critical mission support services such as training, launch readiness, flight operations, and landing rescue services. . Since these services were found to be of “comparable value to both parties”, the contract “contains no exchange of funds”, for POT. Axiom will likely use a SpaceX CrewDragon for mission 2023 (the company recently signed an agreement with SpaceX for four launches in 2022).

Admittedly, this is a strange situation, with NASA getting a Soyuz seat through a broker, and the announcement comes so early before launch. NASA does not want to pay Roscosmos for this service, but the space agency is clearly not ready to rely exclusively on a single private partner. It’s a pickle. Given all of this, the unusual arrangement is probably not indicative of how things will look in the future. In fact, Russia has no real incentive to send American astronauts at zero cost, even if that means a “free” ride aboard an American vehicle.

As for the upcoming MS-18 mission, the arriving crew will replace American astronaut Kate Rubins and two Russian cosmonauts. Vande Hei will spend six months aboard the ISS, where he will conduct experiments in cotton root systems, Alzheimer diseaseand a technical demonstration of a portable ultrasound device, as well as contributing to our understanding of how long-term microgravity conditions affect the human body. Vande Hei is no stranger to space, having spent 168 days in space as part of the crew of Expedition 53/54, which he attended from September 2017 to February 2018.

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