End of an era: U.S. astronaut joins Russian space mission for what may be final time

End of an era: U.S. astronaut joins Russian space mission for what may be final time

BAIKONUR COSMODROME, Kazakhstan – Since the start of Sputnik and Yury Gagarin from Kazakhstan’s desert steppe over 60 years ago, the history of space travel has been measured in milestones.

The first satellite, the first human in space, the first to the moon. However, the launch of Soyuz MS-17 on Wednesday marked another milestone: the end of an era.

At 10:45 a.m. local time, a Soyuz rocket shot from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Russia’s sprawling and remote space launch facility in Kazakhstan, to the International Space Station.

It was the last time NASA paid an American astronaut to fly on such a flight with the Russian space agency Roscosmos. Next year, for the first time since the ISS program started 20 years ago, Russia will be flying all-Russian crews on Soyuz.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Russian cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov board the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft on Wednesday.Andrey Shelepin / AFP – Getty Images

Wednesday’s launch will bring cosmonauts Sergei Ryzhikov and Sergei Kud-Sverchkov along with NASA astronaut Kathleen Rubins 250 miles to the station in just three hours and seven minutes.

But in just a few weeks, NASA will begin flying its astronauts to the ISS aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. The agency hopes to eventually let Russian cosmonauts aboard the Dragon, but it is unclear when that will happen.

A Roscosmos spokesman told NBC News that there were no specific plans for a Russian to join the US company, adding that the issue was inextricably linked to future US trips on Soyuz.

Stephen Koerner, NASA director of flight operations at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said it would be at least a year before any seat changes were made.

“It will really depend on whether the US occupation vehicles will take off at some point,” he said.

The collaboration between NASA and Roscosmos on board the International Space Station has been a success. Both sides regularly praise each other and speak highly of their relationship, but that partnership was the product of another era in US-Russia relations.

“The cooperation between the United States and [Russia] It happened because changes in this part of the world made it possible, ”said Susan Eisenhower, author of Partners in Space: US-Russian Collaboration after the Cold War.

“The resulting partnership in space took place because it served the interests of both countries.

After years of preparation and construction, the ISS was ready for action as a distant embodiment of reconciliation and collaboration between old rivals after the Cold War.

When NASA withdrew the US space shuttle program in 2011, it was entirely dependent on the purchase of rides from Russia – a transaction that has been subsidizing Russia’s launch efforts for a decade. This dependency became a major political issue for NASA domestically after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

At the time, government officials on both sides made efforts to politicize the relationship and use it to somehow punish the other. On the Russian side, then Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened to exclude NASA from trips to the ISS in response to the US sanctions against him and Russia because of its actions in Ukraine.

The Soyuz spacecraft MS-17 will fly from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the International Space Station on Wednesday.Andrey Shelepin / GCTC / Russian Space Agency / Reuters

These comments created a greater urgency in US efforts to deploy new spacecraft that US astronauts can deliver to the ISS. The result is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and another Boeing-designed vehicle that will fly later next year.

“While bilateral relations may be strained during these times, it is important that there is an area that stays above geopolitics,” Eisenhower said. “It would be a shame if this, our last area of ​​productive collaboration, were effectively abandoned.”

As part of its efforts to start a new lunar program, NASA proposed building a new space station in lunar orbit called the Lunar Gateway and invited all ISS partners to participate. But NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Monday that Roscosmos has yet to say whether it will be attending.

Rogozin, now head of Roscosmos, said at a space conference on Monday: “In our view, the gateway in its current form is US-centered. Therefore, it will most likely from a large-scale participation [the project]. ”

“In the current political circumstances and trends in US-Russia relations, I believe there is no future for bilateral space relations,” said Russian space analyst Pavel Luzin.


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