U.S. astronauts now fly to the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil, right?
So why is a NASA astronaut about to blast-off to the ISS from Russia at a cost of over $90 million?
Despite the success of “Launch America” back on May 30, 2020 when NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley journeyed to and from the ISS in SpaceX hardware during the historic SpaceX Crew Demo-2 mission, NASA astronaut Kate Rubin will this week leave Earth from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
As I reported back in June, it’s the final part of an existing contract between NASA and the Russian space agency to send a US astronaut to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
When is the next rocket launch to the ISS?
Rubin is due to lift-off on Wednesday, October 14, at 1:45 a.m. EDT (10:45 a.m. Kazakhstan time) together with cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov of Roscosmos. Their two-orbit, three-hour journey will begin their six-month mission on the ISS.
Where to watch the rocket launch to the ISS
You can tune-in to the launch online by visiting NASA TV on the space agency’s website or NASA TV on YouTube:
Why is NASA paying Russia $90 million to launch an astronaut when it now has SpaceX?
NASA has been signing contracts with Russia to buy seats on Soyuz spacecraft since 2011 when the Shuttle was grounded. This is its last currently contracted seat, NASA confirmed to me last week. In fact, a contract modification in May 2020 procured one seat at a cost of $90,252,905.69. The cost covers training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue services.
So does this mean NASA had a Plan B while SpaceX was testing its Crew Dragon spacecraft last summer? “NASA continues to have high confidence in our U.S. commercial crew partners for regular crew rotation,” said NASA in an emailed statement to me.
However, there’s a refreshing lack of nationalism in what is, after all, an entirely global endeavor. “As the U.S. commercial crew capability becomes operational, astronauts and cosmonauts should resume flying together on our respective spacecraft, consistent with past practice,” reads the statement from NASA.
Will Russian cosmonauts fly on NASA SpaceX missions?
Almost certainly—because it’s safer. “A problem with a spacecraft in orbit may require the full crew of that spacecraft to return to Earth,” reads the NASA statement. “Flying mixed crews is mutually beneficial as it would increase the probability that both astronauts and cosmonauts will be on the space station to perform critical operations.”
NASA and Roscosmos are now discussing plans to ensure at least one U.S. and Russian crew member are aboard the ISS at any one time.
So while the days of paying $90 million-per-seat are over for NASA, we can expect to see Russian cosmonauts on SpaceX missions and NASA astronauts on Soyuz missions.
What about the ‘space toilet?’
While on the ISS, Rubin will be taking part in myriad science experiments, though one of her and the crew’s biggest jobs will be to test NASA’s new “space toilet.”
Taken up to the ISS earlier this month on a cargo resupply mission, the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS) is a compact toilet with a Urine Transfer System that further automates waste management and storage. Smaller than the previous toilet, the UWMS is designed for more crew members and for future missions to the Moon and Mars.
“The astronauts will get to use the new space toilet,” said a NASA spokesperson to me a few days ago. “The intent is to fully test it out, and we need humans to do that.”
When is the next SpaceX mission to the ISS?
Rubin’s ride is not the final time a NASA astronaut will ride on Russian space hardware. On Wednesday, October 21, 2020, Expedition 63 Commander Chris Cassidy of NASA and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner—who have been aboard the complex since April 9, 2020—will depart the ISS in a Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft and land in Kazakhstan.
In a mission now delayed until early-to-mid-November, NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission—the first scheduled private mission to the ISS—will take NASA astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.