NASA seeking astronaut seat on Soyuz launch in April

The Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft docks with the International Space Station on Oct. 14, 2020, delivering three new crew members to the research complex. Credit: NASA

NASA wants to fly an astronaut on Russia’s next Soyuz mission to the International Space Station in April, a measure the agency says would ensure a continued U.S. presence on the research outpost in case of delays in the launch of SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon flight.

A NASA astronaut could join two Russian cosmonauts on the Soyuz MS-18 mission, scheduled for launch April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Russian commander Oleg Novitskiy, a veteran of two prior missions to the space station, will lead the three-person crew. Two rookie cosmonauts — Pyotr Dubrov and Sergey Korsakov — have been training to fly in the other two Soyuz seats.

NASA said Feb. 9 it might secure rights to at least one of the Soyuz seats as a hedge against possible delays to SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon launch to the space station, currently scheduled for April 20 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA wants to make sure there is at least one U.S. crew member on the orbiting complex at all times.

In a statement, NASA said the “supplemental seat” on the upcoming Soyuz crew rotation mission would give the space agency a backup plan in case the Crew Dragon launch is delayed. According the Russian Tass news agency, the Russian space agency Roscosmos says it expects to “formalize” an agreement to fly a U.S. astronaut on the mission.

April and May are scheduled to be busy months for crew rotations at the space station.

Novitskiy’s crew will arrive at the space station soon after their April 9 launch from Baikonur, beginning a week-long handover with the outgoing Soyuz crew that docked with the space station last October. The Soyuz MS-17 crew — commander Sergey Ryzhikov, flight engineer Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins — are scheduled to depart the station and head for landing in Kazakhstan on April 17.

Four other members of the station’s current seven-person crew arrived in November aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft. That crew, led by NASA commander Mike Hopkins, will be replaced by four astronauts on SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission set to blast off from Florida on April 20.

Assuming an on-time launch of the Crew-2 mission, Hopkins and crewmates Victor Glover, Soichi Noguchi, and Shannon Walker will head for Earth around May 1, targeting a splashdown at sea off the coast of Florida.

The Crew Dragon’s seven-month design lifetime expires in mid-June, meaning the Crew-2 mission must launch by then for the space station to remain staffed with U.S. astronauts. While there’s no hint of a delay in the Crew-2 launch, schedule slips are common in the space business.

“NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 is expected to launch as planned April 20,” NASA said in a statement Feb. 9. “However, if the mission launch is delayed or an event occurs while Crew-2 is in-orbit that requires a premature return, NASA risks not having a U.S. crew member aboard the International Space Station.”

There’s also the unlikely scenario where a crew capsule might have to leave the space station early, due to a health emergency or a technical failure. Space station astronauts and cosmonauts must ride to and from the station in the same spacecraft, so such a situation could empty the outpost of all its U.S. or Russian crew members.

The Crew-2 astronauts are led by NASA commander Shane Kimbrough, who will be joined by pilot Megan McArthur, Japanese mission specialist Akihiko Hoshide, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

NASA contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to develop the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz vehicles for astronaut transportation services to and from the space station. The Starliner has not yet flown with astronauts, and Boeing plans a second unpiloted test flight of the Starliner in late March, redoing a previous test flight in December 2019 that ended prematurely due to software problems.

If the Starliner demo flight goes well in March, Boeing plans to launch astronauts on a Starliner for the first time around September, followed by the start of regular crew transportation service.

SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission, led by Hopkins, is the company’s first operational Crew Dragon flight. SpaceX previously accomplished successful unpiloted and crewed test flights on the Crew Dragon spacecraft in 2019 and 2020.

NASA officials have said for years they want to continue flying U.S. astronauts on Russian Soyuz missions. But instead issuing cash payments directly to the Russian government, NASA says it wants to provide Russian cosmonauts with rides on SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner spaceships in return.

Kathy Lueders, head of NASA’s human spaceflight directorate, told Spaceflight Now in November that the agency had finalized the text of a draft agreement with Roscosmos that would allow Russian cosmonauts to begin flying to the International Space Station on U.S. crew capsules in 2021.

She said NASA wanted to have the agreement in place in time for a Russian cosmonaut to fly on SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission scheduled for launch this fall. NASA has named three crew members to the Crew-3 mission, and a seat remains open, likely for a Russian cosmonaut if agencies approve a final agreement in time.

The agreement would allow all future U.S. and Russian crew missions to the station to carry a crew member from the other partner.

The agreement will help ensure there is always a trained crew member on-board the space station to operate the outpost’s Russian section and U.S. On-Orbit 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.

“At NASA, we have a phrase we use often – dissimilar redundancy. That’s NASA speak for saying we always have a back-up plan that ensures we have a path forward even if we encounter an issue with our initial approach,” said Robyn Gatens, acting director for the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters. “We look forward to the next crew rotation on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 mission, and we’re looking to ensure we can continue to maximize our use of the station and minimize any risk by flying a U.S. astronaut on the upcoming spring Soyuz by providing in-kind services.”

NASA issued a solicitation this week to request information from companies that might be able to secure a Soyuz seat on the April 9 launch. NASA has previously used Boeing as an intermediary to purchase Soyuz seats, and other space tourism companies — like Axiom Space and Space Adventures — are in positions to act as brokers in such a deal.

The Verge reported Thursday that NASA is looking to buy the Soyuz seat in April through Axiom.

“There is one established U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV) capability in the early phases of operation, which is scheduled to fly this spring, and a second USCV provider in the late stages of development,” NASA wrote in the Feb. 9 solicitation, referring to SpaceX and Boeing, respectively. “Experience has shown that new launch capabilities may encounter unanticipated delays or difficulties maintaining initial schedules.

“Should no supplemental crew transportation capability be acquired, the result could be a period wherein there is no U.S. presence on the ISS, disrupting ongoing research and technology development in the United States On-orbit Segment (USOS), in addition to putting the ISS itself at risk since trained USG (U.S. government) crew members are necessary to maintain and operate hardware and to conduct emergency Extravehicular Activities (EVAS, or spacewalks) if necessary to perform repairs,” NASA said.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.