Space may still be the final frontier, but the dynamic of the joint partnership between the U.S. and Russia is changing. When the Soyuz spacecraft launched earlier this month, headed for the International Space Station (ISS), NASA said it would be the last time the U.S. would pay for a seat on the craft. This doesn’t mean America’s partnership with Russia will end. Quite the opposite—at least, that is the hope.
Major General Charles Bolden, the former Administrator for NASA and a member of the Board of Regents at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies says that while this may be the end of an era, it is most likely not the last time an American astronaut will board the Soyuz spacecraft.
Crews travel to and from the ISS in teams, and although crews are cross trained in each other’s space suits, the ISS Russian and US onboard systems are very different in operation and design. US crews are trained on US systems and Russian crews are trained on Russian systems. “We ideally want to have at least one American and one Russian crew member onboard the ISS who are cross-trained in Soyuz and U.S. commercial vehicles as a contingency for the need to make an emergency return to Earth (if one vehicle and team needs to return home because of medical or other emergency, for example),” Bolden said.
The goal is to ensure that both countries are comfortable, prepared, and trained to travel on commercial and government spacecraft in use to date. NASA wants what they call “mixed crews.” That’s when a Russian cosmonaut would fly to the ISS on a commercial flight with at least one American astronaut, and similarly, an astronaut would launch on Soyuz with at least one Russian counterpart.
Bolden says what will happen is the respective crew members will undergo training in the host nation at no cost. This puts Russia fully into the “barter agreement” under which all other space partners have operated from the beginning of the ISS Program. In this agreement, there is no exchange of currency, but rather the exchange of services or equipment for the ISS. “This is a further step in strengthening the partnership between NASA and Roscosmos wherein we become even more reliant on each other for long-term crew transportation to low-Earth orbit. As we develop Russian confidence in our U.S. vehicles, I actually think we will find a preference among many of the cosmonauts to fly in our larger, more roomy vehicles in which they can actually do minimal tasks during periods of crew vehicle occupancy on longer transits or extended on-orbit undocked periods,” Bolden said.
The “mixed crews” concept ensures continuity of the mission and is paramount to the success of advancements in space, so getting buy-in from the Russians to fly on board U.S. commercial spacecraft is key. Russia says it is not yet committed to the “mixed crews” concept. Russian officials tell the U.S. they want to see more successful commercial launches and missions before they will sign on to a “mixed crews” agreement. They will have that opportunity. SpaceX plans to launch astronauts from the U.S., Japan, and Europe to the ISS next month and early in 2021.