Although nothing has been officially signed yet, Nasa plans to continue piloting its astronauts on the Russian Soyuz vehicle, even after US commercial crew vehicles come on stream, according to a spokesman for the agency.
"Bill Gerstenmaier and NASA's senior leadership have stated their intention to have crews on Soyuz vehicles after 2019 and [to have] Russians on US crew vehicles, "Stephanie Schierholz, who works in public affairs at NASA headquarters in Washington, told Space.com.
Gerstenmaier is the associate administrator of human exploration and operations for NASA, a position he has held since 2005. This post gives him an immense influence on the use of the International Space Station (ISS) and the development of future human space programs. [Soyuz Launch Photos: Expedition 58 Crew Lifts Off for Space Station]
NASA has an agreement with Russia to transport Soyuz crews by at least 2019, and some of those crew members are already announced. US astronaut Rookie Anne McClain, who flew to the International Space Station on a Soyuz on December 3, is scheduled to return to the station on a Soyuz in six months.
And on February 28, the crew of Expedition 59, which will launch in a Soyuz, will include two Americans: Nick Hague and Christina Koch. Hague was one of the astronauts who underwent an abortion on Expedition 57 in October, returning quickly to Earth after the failure; since its launching has surpassed the accepted limit for the space, Expedition 59 will count officially like its second trip to the space, whereas it will be the first one of Koch.
These new American spaceflight go to orbit at a time when NASA relies exclusively on Soyuz vehicles to send astronauts into space. NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011 and has since had Russian vehicles to go to the ISS.
In most cases, this arrangement went smoothly, with the October launch being the only disruption in crew spins since Russia became the only supplier of NASA's human launch services. (In comparison, NASA suffered a three-year shutdown on ISS operating flights after the space shuttle fleet was abandoned in 2003 following the fatal crash at Columbia.)
NASA and two commercial crew providers, Boeing and SpaceX, are now close to bringing vehicles to online teams. SpaceX announced its first unmanned test flight of the human spaceship Dragon in 2019, and Boeing is expected to launch its own unmanned flight in the coming months. Once these vehicles are certified for flight, the astronauts will mount them on the ISS.
In August, NASA unveiled nine US astronauts who will fly on the first certification flights of Starliner, Boeing, and Dragon, from SpaceX. Post-certification flight crews have not been announced, but Schierholz said these flights will include crews from outside the US – an inclusion that NASA hopes will extend to the Russians. NASA said these post-certification flights will be fully operational and will be regular long-rotation missions, as well as the missions facilitated by Soyuz today.
Schierholz added that having Russian and American vehicles flying simultaneously would provide "redundancy in crew transportation" to the ISS. In addition, flying to Americans and Russians in both sets of vehicles makes sense, as the space station is made up of two distinct segments: one Russian side and one North American side, which includes several modules from other countries. Because these two segments are quite different, Schierholz said, operational requirements say that the best practice is to always have an American and a Russian working at the same time on the ISS.
"The intention is to continue to have mixed crews on all the vehicles that go to the space station," she said.
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