It was 3-2-1 Blastoff at 3:45 p.m. AEDT, October 14, when a Soyuz 2.1a rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. In the Soyuz MS-17 spaceship sat the rubies and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov. These are the first three members of the seven-person Expedition 64 crew who will work aboard the International Space Station until April 2021.
The trio docked at the ISS about three hours later and arrived at AEDT at 7:48 p.m. If this seems awfully quick, you are not wrong. In order to deliver the crew in such a timely manner, the Russian space agency Roscosmos pursued a super-fast two-orbit approach. These trips to the ISS used to take more than 50 hours.
From 2013, Russia reduced this value to six hours using a four-orbit approach, and in 2018 the trip was reduced to four hours using a two-orbit approach. The Russians managed to narrow it down even further with today’s three hour and three minute hike. This is a new record (the previous record was three hours and 18 minutes, set by the Progress MS-17 cargo spacecraft on July 23, 2020). Roscosmos launches its Soyuz rocket just before the ISS passes directly overhead.
The Soyuz spacecraft MS-17 docked at the ISS. (Image: NASA television)
Rubins, Ryzhikov and Kud-Sverchkov joined NASA astronauts Chris Cassidy and Roscosmos cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner, who have been on the ISS since April. Expedition 64 officially starts with the departure of the Expedition 63 crew, which is scheduled for October 20th.
For Rubins, this is her second time in space after working aboard the ISS in 2016. As a medical researcher, Rubins is the first scientist to sequence DNA in space, according to NASA.
Sometime in November, the other four members of Expedition 64 – NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Shannon Walker and Victor Glover, and Soichi Noguchi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) – will launch aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spaceship that NASA calls what NASA calls “First operational commercial mission to the space station” describes which returns the ability to regularly launch people from America for the first time since retiring from the space shuttle program in 2011. The launch was supposed to be on October 31st, but SpaceX is currently investigating an issue with its Falcon 9 rocket engine.
Given the recent success of the joint NASA-SpaceX Crew-2 mission, in which astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley were successfully delivered to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon, it is reasonable to ask why NASA is currently paying $ 90 ($ 126). 25 million to Roscosmos for Rubins’ seat on a Soyuz spaceship. NASA said it did this to “ensure the agency maintains its commitment to safe operations through an ongoing US presence aboard the International Space Station until commercial crew capabilities are routinely available.”
In fact, NASA and SpaceX are still working on some final details to earn Crew Dragon certification, including verifications of the spacecraft’s launch, docking, and return capabilities. The upcoming launch of the SpaceX capsule will be an important step in making all of this seem routine. During a briefing late last month, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine said the launch was “a critical milestone in the development of our ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil – now sustainable.”
Does today’s Soyuz rocket launch mean the last time NASA will pay Russia for its astronaut delivery services? In a statement emailed to Forbes, NASA put it this way: “When the US trade team’s capability is operational, astronauts and cosmonauts should fly together again on our respective spaceship, in line with previous practice.” And like Jeff Foust reported to SpaceNews, “NASA has shown no public interest in purchasing future Soyuz seats.”
This could of course change if Crew Dragon is not certified or the above problem with the Falcon 9 missile persists. Or – heaven forbid – something much more serious happens. Boeing, NASA’s other commercial crew partner, is still working to fix a number of issues that were uncovered during the overwhelming launch of the CST-100 Starliner late last year. A crew test of the Boeing spacecraft could take place in June 2021, but this requires successful unmanned tests in the coming months. Suffice it to say, given some uncertainties, we shouldn’t be too far ahead of ourselves at both SpaceX and Boeing.
And while NASA won’t be paying for seats on Soyuz for the foreseeable future, that doesn’t necessarily mean NASA astronauts will never dock a ride aboard those missiles again. According to SpaceNews, NASA has spoken of “mixed crews,” where NASA astronauts will continue to fly Soyuz rockets and Roscosmos cosmonauts will fly commercial crew vehicles.
However, to be fair, Russia hasn’t really approved of the concept so it may not actually happen, even though it’s a really good idea. Time will tell, especially when Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner crew launches become routine.
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