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 wish to keep the jointly operated facility above Earth-related tensions.
But one of the biggest outstanding questions is whether the way astronauts and astronauts get to the space station will change. Before hostilities broke out, NASA and Russia were planning to begin “seat swaps” this fall, with astronaut Anna Kikina, flying a SpaceX Crew Dragon for the first time.
Currently, Kikina is scheduled to launch as part of the “Crew 5” mission in September, which will be led by NASA astronaut Nicole Mann. Around the same time, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio will launch the Soyuz MS-22 mission led by Sergei Prokopyev.
However, a senior NASA official told Ars that there is still no official word on whether or not the exchange will occur. The decision is up to diplomats in Moscow and Washington, DC, and is due to be finalized in the coming weeks.
“It’s practical,” said Joel Montalbano, Houston-based ISS program manager. “Roskosmos need to get approval from the State Department, after which they go to their Prime Minister. After that, the agreement reaches the US State Department for approval.”
Montalbano said he is keen on having the seat swap because it should help solidify a partnership that was shaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He said, “I pay.” “I think it’s the right thing to do, just because it has happened with similar compounds. But we have to see.”
Russian cosmonaut Sergey Krikalev was the first Russian to fly a US spacecraft, on the NASA space shuttle in 1994. A year later, NASA astronaut Norman Thagarde flew to the Mir space station aboard a Soyuz craft. After the space shuttle retired in 2011, NASA had to rely on Russia for transportation to the space station. Although it eventually charged NASA about $90 million for a seat, Russia halted its end by providing reliable transportation. NASA no longer needs Russia for this, with Crew Dragon going online as an operational spacecraft.
An exchange of seats may be useful for reasons beyond diplomacy. By flying astronauts aboard Russian vehicles, NASA can ensure it always has at least one Westerner on board to keep its side of the facility running during crew-to-crew deliveries.
However, tensions in Ukraine have increased the stakes. Does Russia want the optics of one of its cosmonauts flying on an American rocket? And does the US State Department want similar optics, with NASA astronauts training near Moscow and launching from Russia’s main spaceport in Kazakhstan?
For now, the answer seems solid Can. To that end, Montalbano said training is continuing for a potential seat swap. Kekina was in Houston last week, preparing for her next assignment. She is expected to return in mid-June, he said, to work in Houston and at SpaceX’s training facilities in Hawthorne, California.