NASA still working on long-term plans for ISS seat barters
WASHINGTON — As NASA prepares to launch another commercial crew mission with a Russian cosmonaut on board, the agency says it has yet to work out an agreement with Roscosmos on future crew swaps.
At a Jan. 25 briefing, agency officials said they are moving ahead with plans to launch the Crew-6 Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station on Feb. 26 at 2:07 a.m. Eastern. The spacecraft will deliver to the station NASA astronauts Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, Emirati astronaut Sultan Alneyadi and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev.
Fedyaev will be the second Russian cosmonaut to fly on Crew Dragon, after Anna Kikina, who launched on Crew-5 in October 2022 and will return from the station in early March. Those flights were enabled by a seat barter agreement completed in July 2022 that also allowed American astronauts to fly on Soyuz spacecraft. NASA had long sought what it called “integrated crews” on visiting vehicles to ensure that there would be both Americans and Russians on the station in the event either Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles were unavailable for an extended period.
At the time of the announcement, NASA said the agreement covered the flights of Kikina and Fedyaev on Crew Dragon and NASA astronauts Frank Rubio and Loral O’Hara on Soyuz. Rubio launched on Soyuz MS-22 in September 2022, but damage to that spacecraft in December will extend his stay, along with his two Russian crewmates, as Roscosmos will replace it with an uncrewed Soyuz MS-23 launching Feb. 20.
That will delay the flight of O’Hara, who had been originally scheduled to launch in March with Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub, likely until the fall on Soyus MS-24. However, NASA managers said the agency has not finalized plans yet for future integrated crews.
“Right now we’re still working with Roscosmos on the swap in the fall of this year,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager. “We’re not finalized yet on the fall, but we’re continuing to work in that direction.”
He and others said they want to continue to exchange seats between Soyuz and commercial crew missions. “Integrated crew, and that integrated crew strategy and planning, helped us really be able to work on having the most robust strategy possible” to deal with the Soyuz MS-22 problem, said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations.
At a separate briefing Jan. 25, Bowen, commander of Crew-6, endorsed continued use of integrated crews. “I think it’s an advantage for all of us.”
Crew-6 is scheduled to spend six months at the ISS. A full schedule of research activities is planned, as well as spacewalks near the end of their stay to install a final set of new solar panels for the station.
Crew-6 will also see a high cadence of visiting vehicles. That will start, Montalbano said, with a cargo Dragon mission, SpaceX CRS-27, scheduled to launch about 12 days after Crew-6, a schedule Montalbano said could slip if there are delays in the return of Crew-5. A Northrop Grumman Cygnus cargo mission, NG-19, will follow in early April.
That will be followed by two crewed missions making short-term visits. The crewed flight test of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, with NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Suni Williams on board, is currently scheduled to launch in mid-April. The Starliner crew capsule was mated to its service module last week in Florida.
“We’re really looking forward” to Starliner, said Bowen. Having two companies able to transport astronauts to the station “will change the way we look how we fly to space.”
Later in the second quarter will feature a visit by Ax-2, the second private astronaut mission by Axiom Space. NASA said Jan. 20 that it and the other ISS partners had approved the crew for that mission, which will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson with an Axiom customer, John Shoffner, serving as pilot.
The NASA statement did not disclose the other two people flying on Ax-2, stating only that those two mission specialists “will be announced later.” They are widely believed to be astronauts from Saudi Arabia under a deal Axiom Space and the Saudi Space Commission announced in September 2022. A NASA official confirmed at a November committee meeting that Saudi astronauts would fly on Ax-2 and had already started training.
Bowen said he and the Crew-6 crew had talked with Whitson and Shoffner about the upcoming Ax-2 mission. “We think it’s going to be a great opportunity, a great flight when they get to visit,” he said. The Ax-2 mission will spend about a week at the station. “They have a great plan for their mission and we’ll do what we can to support them.”
Another SpaceX cargo Dragon will follow Ax-2, delivering solar arrays. Hoburg said it will take two or three spacewalks to install that final pair of arrays that will boost the station’s power.
“We’re going to be busy,” Bowen said. “We’re going to be tired, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”