SpaceX Launches Russian Astronaut on Crew-5 Space Station Mission
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A SpaceX rocket launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. One crew member was a Russian astronaut, showing the continued cooperation between the United States and Russia on the International Space Station in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.CreditCredit…Joe Skipper/Reuters
Oct. 5, 2022
A SpaceX rocket carrying four astronauts to the International Space Station launched on Wednesday.
The rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida just after noon on Wednesday. It is to arrive at the space station shortly before 5 p.m. on Thursday.
One of the passengers of the mission, Crew-5, is a Russian astronaut, Anna Kikina. Her presence on the spacecraft shows that cooperation is continuing between the United States and Russia on the International Space Station in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The other crew members on Wednesday’s flight are Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada of NASA and Koichi Wakata of JAXA, the Japanese space agency. The four will spend half a year in orbit on the space station.
In July, NASA and Roscosmos, the state corporation that oversees the Russian space industry, completed an agreement to fly Russian astronauts on American rockets and NASA astronauts on Russian Soyuz rockets. As part of the arrangement, Frank Rubio, a NASA astronaut, launched on a Soyuz last month. Ms. Kikina is the first Russian to ride in a SpaceX rocket.
In recent years, even before the war of Ukraine, Russian and American officials contemplated the future of the International Space Station. The outpost in orbit has been continuously occupied since 2000 and is jointly managed by both countries.
The current agreement to manage the station ends in 2024. During the Trump administration, NASA officials proposed retiring the International Space Station and turning to commercial alternatives. However, no private space stations seemed likely to be launched that quickly, and NASA now says it would like to extend operations on the I.S.S. through 2030.
Russia has said it will build its own space station, but it has also indicated that it will not leave the I.S.S. until that is ready. While Dmitry Rogozin, the former director general of Roscosmos, made bombastic threats that Russia would leave the project, Russia never gave official notice that it would leave before the end of the agreement in 2024.
From left, Nicole Mann, Koichi Wakata, Anna Kikina and Josh Cassada arriving at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday, days before the launch.Credit…Joe Skipper/ReutersRussia, like the other countries involved with the space station, is currently talking with NASA about the proposed 2030 extension. Russia has suggested its participation might not continue for so long, but it has also said that it would not leave until its future space station is operational.
While the space station’s future remains far on the horizon, NASA and Russia have had to address getting crews to and from the outpost in orbit in the present. In the early years of the space station, before the loss of the Columbia shuttle in 2003, the two countries traded seats on the American space shuttles and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. After the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA purchased seats from Russia for the transportation of its astronauts to and from orbit. That became unnecessary when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule became operational in 2020.
But NASA wanted to resume trading seats. For the seat exchange program, no money is paid between NASA and Roscosmos. Rather, the arrangement is intended to help ensure smooth operations on the space station, which consists of a Russian-led segment and a NASA-led segment.
“They provide the propulsion,” Bill Nelson, NASA’s administrator, said during NASA Television coverage of the launch. “We, the U.S., provide the electricity. So for the safety of all the crew, as well as the operation of the station, we need both there now, particularly with regard to safety.”
The worry is that some kind of emergency — a serious health issue with a crew member, for example — could lead to an early return to Earth. All of the crew members on the spacecraft would have to return to Earth, too. (Otherwise, there would not be enough seats on the remaining spacecraft.) If all the Russians arrived on the Soyuz, that would leave the Russian segment of the space station with no crew to manage it.
“Flying integrated crews ensures there are appropriately trained crew members on board the station for essential maintenance and spacewalks,” NASA said in a statement in July when Ms. Kikina was announced as a member of the Crew-5 mission.
From left, Dmitry Rogozin, the former head of Roscosmos; President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; Yuri Borisov, the current head of Roscosmos; and Igor Arbuzov, the chief executive of a rocket company, in 2019.Credit…Sputnik/ReutersDespite tensions on Earth since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, operations on the International Space Station have been largely unaffected. But there were strains on the ground. When Mr. Rogozin was still running Roscosmos, he demanded the lifting of economic sanctions against Russian aerospace companies while threatening that Russia would leave the space station. And in July, in a rare burst of disapproval, NASA strongly criticized Roscosmos for distributing photographs of three Russian astronauts on the space station holding the flags of Russian-backed separatists in two provinces of Ukraine.
Shortly after that, Mr. Rogozin was replaced, and his successor, Yuri Borisov, has been much more low-key.
Soon after his appointment, Mr. Borisov suggested that Russia’s involvement in the space station after 2024 was uncertain during a meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in July. But Mr. Borisov and other Russian officials have been more measured about their country’s plans, noting that Russia’s independent orbital station will not be built until later in the decade.
“We do not intend to stop our manned program even for a minute, so our future plans will be connected with the creation of the Russian Orbital Station.” Mr. Borisov said this week at the Russian Academy of Sciences, according to a report from Roscosmos.
During a NASA news conference after the launch, Sergei Krikalev, executive director for the human spaceflight programs at Roscosmos, was asked if the Russians were making a concerted effort to ease the tensions that Mr. Rogozin had stoked.
“The answer is yes,” Mr. Krikalev said.
The swapping of seats continues next year.
Andrey Fedyaev, another Russian astronaut, will be a member of Crew-6, the next SpaceX mission, planned for February.
The next Soyuz mission, scheduled to launch in the spring, will also have a NASA astronaut aboard, Loral O’Hara.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.