US and Russia agree to swap seats on space station flights

The first flights under the deal are scheduled for September.

NASA Johnson

The US may have imposed economic sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, but in space, the two countries are finding ways to continue working together. NASA and Roscosmos have signed a long-awaited agreement to swap seats on flights to the International Space Station. After the space shuttle program shut down, NASA relied on Russian Soyuz flights for years to ferry its astronauts to the orbiting lab. That is, until SpaceX succeeded in getting the Crew Dragon certified for human spaceflights. Now, the agency will again be securing seats on the Soyuz, while Russian cosmonauts will be flying aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon flights.

NASA said in a statement provided to The New York Times:

"Flying integrated crews ensures there are appropriately trained crew members on board the station for essential maintenance and spacewalks. It also protects against contingencies such as a problem with any crew spacecraft, serious crew medical issues or an emergency aboard the station that requires a crew and the vehicle they are assigned to return to Earth sooner than planned."

In other words, the agreement will ensure that both the US- and the Russian-operated segments of the station will never be unmanned in case of canceled flights or other emergencies. The agency also said that the first integrated flights will take place in September, with Anna Kikina being the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on a Crew Dragon. She will be joined by NASA's Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada, as well as Japan's Koichi Wakata. Meanwhile, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio will be heading to the ISS aboard a Soyuz flight. In the spring of 2023, Russia's Andrei Fedyaev and NASA's Loral O’Hara will also be swapping seats. No money will change hands under the agreement, unlike in the past when NASA paid Roscosmos around $56 million a seat.

The announcement comes at the same time as Dmitry Rogozin's dismissal as the head of Roscosmos. Rogozin had made controversial statements and decisions for years, but especially in recent months following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. After the European Space Agency formally backed out of the ExoMars joint mission with Russia, for instance, Rogozin said he ordered the Roscosmos crew to stop working with the European-made robotic arm on the ISS. Roscosmos, under his leadership, also distributed images of cosmonauts holding the flags of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. NASA issued a statement afterward, saying it "strongly rebukes using the International Space Station for political purposes to support [the] war against Ukraine."

The Times said Kremlin's spokesperson clarified that Rogozin's dismissal has nothing to do with his performance. According to Space, Latvia-based news outlet Meduza reported that Rogozin would be assigned as Putin's chief of staff or as an administrator overseeing the Ukraine territories Russia had occupied, but neither rumor has been confirmed just yet.

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