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NASA seeks seat on Soyuz mission on ISS

NASA says it will offer "in-kind services" to Roscosmos in exchange for a seat on the next Soyuz launch to the ISS.

NASA has announced that it wants to obtain a seat on the next Soyuz mission to the International Space Station, launching in just two months, to ensure a US presence on the station in the event of any commercial crew delays.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station in the fall and another flight is scheduled for April 20, but the agency wants to ensure “dissimilar redundancy” by having the option to use Soyuz.

NASA said it wanted the seat on the next Soyuz mission as it “minimises risks associated with any interruption in US crew member presence on ISS” that might be caused by problems with commercial crew vehicles.

The commercial crew systems developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (Starliner) will relieve NASA of its dependence on Russia, but NASA officials have said for years that the long term plan was to continue launching US astronauts on Soyuz and to launch Russian cosmonauts on the commercial crew systems to ensure cross-training for safety reasons.

In a procurement synopsis posted, NASA said: “Experience has shown that new launch capabilities may encounter unanticipated delays or difficulties maintaining initial schedules. Even with no delays of the next USCV launch to ISS, a contingency undock of that USCV could occur due to unforeseen circumstances.”

NASA has long expressed a desire for “mixed crews,” with American astronauts continuing to fly on Soyuz vehicles while Russian cosmonauts fly on commercial crew spacecraft, so that there is at least one American and one Russian on the station should either Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles be grounded for an extended period. Those seats would be bartered, rather than purchased.

Robyn Gatens, acting director for the ISS at NASA Headquarters, said: “We look forward to the next crew rotation on NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 mission, and we’re looking to ensure we can continue to maximise our use of the station and minimise any risk by flying a US astronaut on the upcoming spring Soyuz by providing in-kind services.”

As she noted, NASA does not plan to purchase the Soyuz seat, as it has done in the past. “In consideration for this supplemental crew transportation service, NASA is considering providing similar in-kind services.”

NASA did not disclose what those “in-kind services” would be, although the synopsis is titled “International Space Station Seat Exchange.”

The Soyuz mission in question, Soyuz MS-18, is scheduled for launch around April 10.