Will SpaceX end The International Space Station’s Russian-American partnership?
One of the last surviving bonds shared between adversaries, Russia and the United States, is a costly, imperfect but functioning 26-year relationship held together by billions of tax-payer’s dollars.
It was 56-years ago, on an April night, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to escape Earth’s gravity, sparking the Cold War Space Race and both our country’s obsession with space exploration. Today our forces work together with scientists, engineers, and astronauts nurturing the seeds of human exploration of our solar system.
Roscosmos, Russia’s Space Agency, has steadily increased the cost per seat for NASA astronauts. NASA paid a comparative $21.8 million per seat on the Soyuz in 2007 and 2008, while in 2018, NASA will pay a whopping $81 million per Soyuz seat, or a 372% increase in 10 years. Essentially bringing the cost for NASA to about $3.37 billion over 12 years.
Roscosmos, also known as the state program responsible for Russia’s space activities, civilian Earth monitoring, coordinating with the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation for military launches, and the country’s astronaut program – formed in 1992, uniting a join-stock entity aiming to bolster the space sector previously run by United Rocket and Russia’s Space Corporation. After the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991, the agency poured all of its resources into the International Space Station (ISS), seeding its foundation as a major participant of the international endeavor.
So there you have it. The Russian-American alliance began as early as 1991, with its latest mission undergone on April 17th, 2017, when the Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft was fitted into its vertical launching position at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan; preparing two new Expedition 51 crew members, Fyodor Yurchikin of Roscosmos and Jack Fischer of NASA to leave the Earth’s surface just 72 hours later. Saying goodbye to their families and taking with them all of their training, at 3:13 a.m. ET on April 20th, the two spacemen embarked for the International Space Station, marking another Russian-American operation to the last frontier.
Looking back, some of the Roscosmos first major contributions include the Zvezda service module, a docking hatch on the ISS, the research module Rassvet, and now regular flights to the ISS by their Progress spacecraft. Russia’s most notable contribution is their ability to get astronauts to and from the space station, since NASA retired their space shuttle fleet in 2011. Although private carriers like Boeing and SpaceX have made progress in spaceflight development, Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft is the only entity who charters NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.
The journey to the ISS begins at the Soyuz launching pad located at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a previously Soviet Union territory, that remains under lease by the Russians. The Russian space agency has plans to move the launching pad to their own territory, but for now these hardware contributions have ensured Russia as an essential member of the ISS effort – so long as NASA is willing and able to pay for it. If and when Russia decides to move its launching pad, it would place Roscosmos in an even greater advantageous platform to possible raise the already costly Soyuz seat. To this day every major Soyuz launch has held at least one Russian on board for long-term stays on the ISS. Including Oleg Novitskiy, who’s currently onboard the ISS with other coalition members.
But this Russian-American dynamic is often overlooked by the public and media alike, especially the financial and political implications the two countries face in not only sending astronauts to the ISS, but bringing them home. And with Russia’s foothold on the program continuing to gain financial advantages, NASA is forced to take a look at SpaceX and other viable means of spaceflight.
SpaceX and their Dragon spacecraft made its tenth cargo run to the ISS in mid February of 2017, out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Dragon launch is a milestone, or the first domino to fall for Kennedy’s transition to a multi-user spaceport, as NASA reported: “geared to support public and private missions, as well as those conducted in partnership with NASA.”
The ISS houses alongside Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency. While on the ISS, the team will be joined by their new shipmates, Fyodor Yurchikin of Roscosmos and Jack Fischer of NASA, working on over 300 experiments: from micro gravity experiments of plant growth and bone growth, to cancer fighting drugs and the analyzing of crystal growth and atmospheric reentry experiments- all thanks to the supplies abroad cargo vehicles Orbital Cygnus, SpaceX Dragon and the Russian Progress Vehicle.
Understanding how plants grow in space and the behavior of bones for lengthy stays in orbit are all poised experiments to deepen our knowledge of life in space and to strengthen the proposal of human colonisation of Mars and other worlds. And this effort will be a coalition force of Russians, Americans, and Europeans.
The surviving Russian-American cooperation is led by milestone after milestone. Peggy Whitson is now the holder of the longest tenure in space, having received a phone call Sunday, April 23rd, from President Trump, congratulating Whitson on her 525th consecutive day in space. Whitson and every other astronaut and cosmonaut aboard the ISS, provide us a blueprint for Russian-American cohesion while illustrating the financial hurdles needed to continue this matrimony amongst the stars. Whitson expressed to president Trump the only way human beings will make it to Mars is from a united international effort.
Following the Soyuz launch, it took less than 24-hours before a ‘major story’ breached the headlines depicting another Russian/US entanglement. CNN reported heavily for several days surrounding the Soyuz launch of Russian military planes patrolling near Alaskan airspace. The CNN report specifically mentions four Russian planes being seen in as many days, two IL-38 maritime patrol aircraft and two Tu-95 nuclear-capable Bear bombers. None of the Russian military aircraft breached American airspace nor had any of the flights been considered out of the ordinary. What it does however is highlight the intense heightened media-tension between the two countries. One where traditional media doesn’t seem to be offering anything but a breaking point.