WASHINGTON – The Soyuz spacecraft launches on the International Space Station on October 14, which will probably be the last mission in which NASA pays Russia for space, but not necessarily the last time NASA astronauts fly the spacecraft.
The Soyuz-2.1a rocket took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 1:45 a.m. East, placing the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft in orbit nine minutes later. The spacecraft, performing a “superfast” approach with two orbits, docked with the Rassvet module at the station at 4:48 East.
The union brought NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Roscosmos cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov to the station for a six-month stay. The three join the current ISS crew of NASA̵
Rubins was added to the crew in May when NASA announced it was buying a final seat in the Union from Roscosmos for $ 90.25 million. NASA described the purchase as a kind of insurance policy, ensuring that “the agency complies with its commitment to safe operations through a permanent presence in the United States,” as commercial vehicles are finally entering service.
NASA officials had said months earlier in a May announcement that they were in talks with Russia not only about the site but possibly a second place for a mission launched in the spring of 2021 by the ISS on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. In the summer, however, NASA did not express a public interest in buying future sites in the Union.
The agency now expects commercial crew missions to meet its needs to transport astronauts to and from the station. The SpaceX Crew-1 mission, with three NASA astronauts and one of Japan’s JAXA space agencies on board, is scheduled to launch in early to mid-November. The Crew-2 mission with astronauts from NASA, JAXA and the European Space Agency will follow in the spring of 2021.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, which was delayed due to problems during an expanded test flight last December, will fly with a crew on a test flight with three NASA astronauts on board no earlier than next June, after a second crazy test flight in December or January. This will allow the vehicle to begin routine transport missions of astronauts by the end of 2021.
However, this does not mean that NASA astronauts will never fly on the Soyuz spacecraft again. NASA has long spoken of its desire for “mixed crews”, with American astronauts flying on the Soyuz spacecraft, while Russian astronauts will fly on commercial crew missions in barter. This would ensure that there is always at least one American and one Russian at the station in case the Union or commercial vehicles are grounded for an extended period.
However, Roscosmos has not yet accepted mixed crews. At a meeting of the ISS Advisory Committee in Mars, commission chairman Tom Stafford said his Russian counterparts had told them they expected successful US commercial crew flights before agreeing to allow astronauts to fly on those vehicles.
To date, there are no Russian astronauts assigned to trade missions. The next long-term Soyuz mission to the ISS, scheduled to launch in April 2021, is expected to have a crew of three Roscosmos astronauts.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstein told a briefing on September 29 about the upcoming Crew-1 mission that he was still chasing mixed crews. “We still believe this is critical,” he said. “I think there is a broad consensus that if both countries want to maintain a permanent presence on the International Space Station, that is the ultimate state we need to achieve.”
“We are in the process of coordinating and implementing an agreement to work in this direction,” added Cathy Luders, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Research and Operations. “Right now it’s a question of which mission we’re going to accomplish, but as far as I’m concerned, the sooner the better.”