More than three months after the invasion of Ukraine, it is clear from the actions of Russia, the United States and other International Space Station partners that they want the jointly operated facility to fly above Earth tensions.
But one of the biggest unanswered questions is whether the way astronauts and cosmonauts reach the space station will change. Before the outbreak of hostilities, NASA and Russia had planned to initiate “seat swaps” this fall, with a cosmonaut, Anna Kikina, flying for the first time on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle.
Currently, Kikina is set to launch on the “Crew 5” mission in September, which will be commanded by NASA astronaut Nicole Mann. Around the same time, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio would embark on the Soyuz MS-22 mission, commanded by Sergei Prokopyev.
However, a key NASA official told Ars there was still no official word on whether the swap would happen. The decision is up to diplomats in Moscow and Washington, DC, and is expected to be finalized in the coming weeks.
“It’s a process,” said Houston-based International Space Station program manager Joel Montalbano. “Roscosmos has to get the deal from the Foreign Office, then they go to their prime minister. After that, the deal goes to the US State Department for approval.”
Montalbano said he was eager to see the seat swap happen, as it should help solidify the partnership that has been rocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “I push,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do, just because it’s happened with similar vehicles. But we’ll have to see.”
A Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, was the first Russian to fly in an American space vehicle, aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle in 1994. A year later, NASA astronaut Norman Thagard flew to the Mir space station aboard a Soyuz vehicle. Following the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA had to rely on Russia for transport to the space station. Although it ultimately charged NASA around $90 million for a seat, Russia held its end of the bargain by providing reliable transportation. NASA no longer needs Russia for that, however, with Crew Dragon coming online as an operational spacecraft.
A seat swap would be beneficial for reasons beyond diplomacy. By flying astronauts on Russian vehicles, NASA can ensure it always has at least one Western crew member aboard the station to keep its side of the facility operational during crew transfers. to the other.
Tensions in Ukraine, however, have raised the stakes. Will Russia want the optics of one of its cosmonauts launching on an American rocket? And will the US State Department want similar optics, with NASA astronauts training near Moscow and launching from Russia’s main spaceport in Kazakhstan?
So far the answer seems to be a solid perhaps. To that end, Montalbano said training is continuing for a possible seat swap. Kikina was in Houston last week preparing for her next assignment. She is expected to return in mid-June, he said, to work both in Houston and at SpaceX training centers in Hawthorne, Calif.