by Douglas Messier
Roscosmos General Director Dmitry Rogozin has said that Russia will extend cosmonaut mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from six to 12 months in order to gather data needed for missions to the moon and Mars.
“We are talking about stable operations that will be carried out as part of yearly expeditions. Now this will be placed on a systemic basis with the corresponding system of biomedical researches. Year-long expeditions are what we need,” Rogozin said.
Well, that sounds good. Far sighted, even visionary. That’s what makes it so odd; these are not words normally associated with the Roscosmos boss. Something else seems to be going on here.
The change is coming just as the multi-billion dollar gravy train that Russia has been riding for the last decade has stopped. To be specific, now that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is flying astronauts to the station, NASA is no longer paying Roscosmos to do that job.
The Russian Soyuz became the only way to get to and from the station following the end of the U.S. space shuttle program in July 2011. And it proved quite a windfall for the Russian space program.
The Russians took advantage of its monopoly and delays in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to earn billions of dollars to fund its space program. Roscosmos raised seat prices from around $30 million to $90 million.
The end of U.S. funding has no doubt created a pretty big hole in Roscosmos’ budget. With seats not being occupied by NASA astronauts, the Russians have reverted to a practice they pioneered back in the Aughts: selling tickets to wealthy individuals. Only this time, there’s a twist.
Between 2001 and 2008, seven Western billionauts and millionauts paid tens of millions of dollars each to make eight flights to ISS aboard Soyuz spacecraft. Former Microsoft engineer Charles Simonyi found the experience so nice he flew there twice.
Previously, a single space tourist — forgive me, spaceflight participant — would fly to the station aboard Soyuz spacecraft with two professional cosmonauts. The newly launched cosmonauts and their Soyuz would remain on ISS, while the spaceflight participant flew home on an older Soyuz with two returning crew members. Soyuz has an orbital lifetime of six to seven months, requiring regular replacement.
To make up for the money NASA is no longer paying it, Roscosmos has decided to train two paying customers to assist a single cosmonaut with flying the ship. Two such flights are scheduled over the next five months.
In October, cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov will fly to the station with actress Yulia Peresild and film director Klim Shipenko, who will film a movie called “Challenge.” Shkaplerov will stay on the space station while Peresild and Shipenko fly home with current station commander Oleg Novitsky.
Russian cosmonaut Pyotr Dubrov and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei would normally have returned to Earth in October. But, now they will stay aboard ISS for about one year to accommodate the movie.
A second Soyuz mission with two paying passengers is set to visit ISS in December. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his personal assistant, Yozo Hirano, will join cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin on the flight. The mission was booked by U.S.-based Space Adventures, which also book all eight space tourism flights to the station during the 2000’s.
Roscosmos is considering flying researchers as well.
“Based on the results of the Challenge project, we will determine when, in what flight periods we will be able to send a professional cosmonaut as a crew commander who will deliver to orbit young scientists who have won a certain selection of young scientists who will fly there with their instruments and the possibility of conducting experiments on board the ISS,” Rogozin told RIA Novosti.
The reason for the change from one paying customer to two can be summed up in one word: SpaceX. Elon Musk’s company is putting downward pressure on the cost of seats to orbit.
SpaceX charges NASA about $55 million for seats aboard Crew Dragon, which is far less than the $90 million the space agency was paying to Russia. It is highly likely that Roscosmos needs to sell two Soyuz seats to make up for what NASA was paying for a single seat.
SpaceX also has two private missions scheduled over the next five months. In September, a crew of non-professional astronauts — Jared Isaacman, Hayley Arceneaux, Sian Proctor and Chris Sembroski — will spend three days in orbit aboard a previously flown Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of the Inspiration4 mission.
In January, Axiom Space will launch three paying customers — Mark Pathy, Larry Connor and Eytan Stibbe — to ISS aboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft. The flight will be commanded by retired NASA astronaut turned Axiom executive Michael Lopez-Alegria.
SpaceX has not disclosed exactly what it is charging for the private missions. Axiom officials have said the per cost seat cost tens of millions of dollars.