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Friday, February 23, 2024

The US Hitches Its Final Ride to Space From Russia—for Now

On Thursday, a Soyuz rocket carrying three astronauts to the International Space Station is scheduled to depart from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in the Kazakhstan desert. The coronavirus pandemic means there won’t be the usual crowds of wellwishers lining the streets to see the astronauts on their way, but the flight is a historic one. It marks the end of NASA’s dependence on Russian rockets for human spaceflight and the return of crewed launches to the United States. But NASA says American astronauts may still end up hitching rides to space in a Soyuz capsule in the future.

Ever since NASA called it quits on its space shuttle program in 2011, the Russian spaceport has been the only facility operating crewed flights outside of China. But that’s about to change. SpaceX is preparing for its first crewed NASA mission to the space station, which could launch from Florida by the end of next month. Boeing has also contracted with NASA for crewed flights, although its program was delayed for several months after a suite of errors during a test mission last year. For the first time in nearly a decade, NASA has options for sending humans to space.

“It’s an amazing time to be at this agency,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a press conference in December. “We will launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil. It’s overdue.”

Chris Cassidy, who is heading to the ISS for the third time, will be the only American astronaut on Thursday’s launch. His two flight companions, Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin, are both cosmonauts at Roscosmos, Russia’s national space agency. Cassidy is a veteran of the shuttle program and flew on a Soyuz rocket once before in 2013.

According to a NASA spokesperson, Cassidy’s seat is the last one that the agency has purchased from Roscosmos. “However, NASA is currently in negotiation with Roscosmos for an additional seat,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to WIRED. “Once NASA certifies the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft, NASA expects to work with Roscosmos and international partners to continue to fly mixed crews.”

NASA’s dependence on Russia to send humans to space has been expensive. A seat in a Soyuz capsule costs $86 million today, an increase of nearly 400 percent over about a decade and a half. A 2016 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that the agency would end up paying Roscosmos more than $3.4 billion by the time SpaceX and Boeing were ready to fly. But when you’re the only one with access to the space station, you can charge what you want.

By bringing launches back to the US, NASA stands to save a lot of money on crewed flights. Last year, the Office of Inspector General determined that a seat on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will cost just $55 million and a seat on Boeing’s Starliner capsule will cost around $90 million. (Boeing officials disputed this figure on the grounds that the company’s capsule can also carry a crew member’s worth of cargo, which they claim makes its seat price closer to $70 million.) Still, both price tags are still way less expensive than a seat on the space shuttle.

Thursday’s Soyuz launch will mark the end of the longest period in NASA’s history since it started crewed spaceflight that the agency didn’t have the capability to send its own astronauts to space. The rebirth of American crewed spaceflight will be spearheaded by Doug Hurley, who was the pilot on NASA’s final shuttle mission and one of two astronauts on SpaceX’s first crewed mission. Hurley and his crew partner Bob Behnken may be riding a Dragon to space this summer, but as far as mythical animals go, it seems more like a phoenix.

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