More than three months after the invasion of Ukraine, it is clear from the actions of Russia, the United States and other partners of the International Space Station that they would like to keep the jointly operated facility flying above the tensions bound to Earth.
But one of the biggest unresolved questions is whether the way astronauts and astronauts get to the space station will change. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, NASA and Russia planned to launch a “seat swap” this fall with astronaut Anna Kikina, who was flying a SpaceX Crew Dragon for the first time.
Kikina is currently scheduled to launch in September as part of the “Crew 5” mission, which will be led by NASA astronaut Nicole Mann. At about the same time, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio would launch the Soyuz MS-22 mission commanded by Sergei Prokopyev.
However, a key NASA official told Ars that there was still no official word on whether the exchange would take place. The decision is up to diplomats in Moscow and Washington, DC and should be finalized in the coming weeks.
“It’s a process,” said Joel Montalbano, program manager for the International Space Station in Houston. “Roscosmos needs to get approval from the State Department, and then they go to their prime minister. Then the agreement comes to the US State Department for approval.”
Montalbano said he wanted to change seats because it should help strengthen the partnership, which was shaken by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “I’m pushing,” he said. “I think it’s right, just because it happened to similar vehicles. But we’ll see.”
Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was the first Russian to fly an American spacecraft aboard the NASA space shuttle in 1994. A year later, NASA astronaut Norman Thagard flew to the Mir space station in a Soyuz spacecraft. After the shuttle was decommissioned in 2011, NASA had to rely on Russia to transport it to the space station. Although NASA eventually charged about $ 90 million for the seat, Russia adhered to the end of the agreement and ensured reliable transportation. But NASA no longer needs Russia because the Crew Dragon is online as an operational spacecraft.
Replacing the seat would be beneficial for reasons other than diplomacy. By flying astronauts on Russian vehicles, NASA can ensure that it always has at least one Western crew member on board, which will keep part of its equipment operational during the transfer from one crew to another.
However, tensions in Ukraine have increased the stakes. Will Russia want the optics of one of its astronauts taking off on an American rocket? And will the US State Department want similar optics when NASA astronauts train near Moscow and take off from Russia’s main spaceport in Kazakhstan?
So far, the answer seems firm maybe. To this end, Montalbano said he was continuing training for a potential seat change. Kikina was in Houston last week, preparing for her upcoming mission. She is expected to return in mid-June, he said, to work in both Houston and SpaceX training facilities in Hawthorne, California.
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