NASA has submitted a draft agreement for government approval that would allow Russian cosmonauts to begin flying to the International Space Station on U.S. crew capsules next year in a no-funds exchanged arrangement with Russia’s space agency.
In return, Russia will continue launching U.S. and international astronauts on Soyuz missions.
But NASA will no longer be sending cash payments to the Russian government for the Soyuz seats. Instead, NASA will provide Russian cosmonauts with rides on SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner spaceships.
Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, said Thursday that the space agency has submitted an “implementing agreement” to the U.S. State Department for review and approval. The agreement would then go through a similar process in the Russian government for approval.
The deal would allow the U.S. and Russian space agencies “to fly at least one crew member on each one of our vehicles,” Lueders said in an interview with Spaceflight Now. “So we’ll be following along, working through that process and getting that agreement approved on our side, and then also then after we approve it, it will go over to the Russians for their approval.”
Russian officials have said they are not assigning cosmonauts to missions on U.S. vehicles until they are flight-proven. After a successful Crew Dragon test flight with two astronauts earlier this year, NASA formally certified the SpaceX capsule and Falcon 9 rocket for operational crew missions during a two-day Flight Readiness Review that concluded Tuesday.
The readiness review cleared the way for launch of the first of at least six regular crew rotation flights to the space station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The mission, known as Crew-1, is set for launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Sunday at 7:27 p.m. EST (0027 GMT Monday) with commander Mike Hopkins, pilot Victor Glover, mission specialist Shannon Walker, and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi.
The four astronauts will kick off an expedition lasting nearly six months, joining NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and flight engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov on the International Space Station.
SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission is tentatively slated to launch March 30 from the Florida spaceport, beginning another expedition lasting roughly six months. A follow-on mission, Crew-3, is scheduled to launch in September 2021 with four more astronauts.
One of those four crew members on the Crew-3 mission will be a Russian cosmonaut, assuming the U.S. and Russian governments can finalize the agreement in time.
“We were hoping we would be able to have something in place by the spring timeframe, but I think probably it’ll be more likely in the late summer timeframe, around the Crew-3 timeframe,” Lueders said. “That’s what we’re shooting for right now.”
Lueders said Russian officials are looking for “multiple flights” of the Crew Dragon and Starliner before clearing cosmonauts to fly the new crew capsules.
“They’re really looking for how do you get multiple flights (of) experience, which we understand, to be able to show the same level of safety for their crew members (as Soyuz),” Lueders said.” But we’re hoping that these flights go well, and we can get the implementing agreement in place, and then we’ll be in the best long-term posture with each other.”
If the intergovernmental agreement is in place next year, an astronaut from NASA or one of the space station’s other international partners — Japan, Europe, or Canada — would take one of the three seats on a Soyuz mission launching from Kazakhstan in late 2021, Lueders said.
“And from there on, we would be (in a position) where every time there’s a flight, you’d have somebody from the other segment on that flight,” Lueders said.
A Soyuz flight set for launch in April will carry an all-Russian crew to the space station.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is not expected to begin regular crew rotation flights to the space station until late 2021, at the earliest. If NASA can sign an agreement with Roscosmos — Russia’s space agency — next year, it’s likely that cosmonauts will fly first on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
The agreement will help ensure there is always a crew member on-board the space station to operate the outpost’s Russian section and U.S. Operating Segment, or USOS, which includes U.S., Japanese, European, and Canadian hardware. If Russia’s Soyuz program or the U.S. crew vehicles are grounded, crew members from the other international partners will still be able to fly to the space station.
“We feel like this is the best technical stance to support the vehicle, when you always have a crew member from the other segment on your vehicle and make sure that you always have somebody up there to operate the other segment if there’s a problem,” Lueders said. “It’s just a really solid logistics stance for us to be in, so we would like to get there as quickly as possible.”
NASA has paid the Russian government approximately $3.9 billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report last year by NASA’s inspector general.
The Soyuz spacecraft was the only vehicle capable of ferrying crews to and from the space station from the last space shuttle mission in 2011 until the Crew Dragon’s piloted test flight, which launched in May.
Flush with NASA money, Russian space contractors doubled the production of Soyuz crew capsules for launches beginning in 2009 to meet the demand for astronaut transportation to the space station. After NASA’s previous bulk purchase of Soyuz seats in 2017 expired this year, Russian officials cut back the Soyuz flight rate to two flights this year.
Earlier this year, NASA paid Russia more than $90 million for one additional Soyuz round-trip ticket to ensure the U.S. side of the space station remain staffed in the event of further delays with the Crew Dragon and Starliner spaceships. NASA assigned Rubins to that seat, and she launched Oct. 14 on the Soyuz MS-16 mission with Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov.
NASA’s inspector general reported last year the agency is paying an average of around $55 million per round-trip seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Boeing’s price is around $90 million per seat.
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