NASA’s acting administrator said Tuesday he does not expect Russian cosmonauts to start launching to the International Space Station on U.S. commercial crew vehicles until next year.
A proposed agreement with Russia to ensure the space station is always staffed with an international crew is awaiting U.S. government approval. The no-funds-exchanged agreement has been in discussion by NASA and Russian space agency officials for years, but sign-off of a final deal has hit roadblocks in recent months.
Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s acting administrator, said Tuesday that the draft version of an “implementing agreement” between NASA and Roscosmos is still being reviewed by the U.S. State Department.
“We’re waiting for the final signatures from the State Department on the implementing agreement, and then we’ll provide that draft to Roscosmos and begin negotiations,” Jurczyk told Spaceflight Now in an interview.
He said he believes NASA is close to getting final State Department approval of the agreement’s text, but the clock has likely run out for getting the State Department signatures and finalizing the agreement with the Russian government in time to assign a Russian cosmonaut to a SpaceX crew mission later this year.
Once the agreement is in place, a Russian cosmonaut would have to be approved to travel to the United States, have a custom SpaceX-developed pressure suit manufactured, and and receive basic training on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.
“I believe it’s now too late to develop a suit and do the training for Crew-3,” Jurczyk said, referring to a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission scheduled for launch Oct. 23. “So most likely the earliest mission to have a cosmonaut on it would be Crew-4.”
The Crew-4 mission is currently scheduled for launch no earlier than the first quarter of 2022.
Last November, NASA said it had submitted the draft agreement to the State Department for approval. At that time, NASA hoped to have the deal finalized in time to assign a Russian cosmonaut to the Crew-3 mission late this year.
Rookie NASA astronaut Raja Chari — a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot — veteran physician-astronaut Tom Marshburn, and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer have been assigned to the Crew-3 mission. NASA left open the Dragon’s fourth seat for a Russian cosmonaut, but that position is now expected to be filled by a crew member from NASA’s astronaut corps or another international partner.
Once NASA and Roscosmos sign the final agreement, managers want every U.S. crew launch to the space station to have a Russian cosmonaut on-board. And every launch of a Russian Soyuz crew capsule would have an astronaut from the United States or another partner qualified to operate NASA’s segment of the space station.
The agreement will help ensure there is always a crew member on the space station to operate the outpost’s Russian section and U.S. Operating Segment, or USOS, which includes U.S., Japanese, European, and Canadian hardware. If Russia’s Soyuz program or the U.S. crew vehicles are grounded, crew members from the other international partners will still be able to fly to the space station.
It would also guard against a medical emergency that could force half of the space station’s crew to leave the outpost early and return to Earth. If one spacecraft had to depart the station early, all of that capsule’s crew would have to come back to Earth to ensure they’re not stranded in orbit without a lifeboat.
That could force all Russian or all U.S. crew members to evacuate the space station, leaving critical parts of the spacecraft’s propulsion, life support, and control systems at risk.
International astronauts are already flying on SpaceX Crew Dragon missions. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi launched on the Crew-1 mission — the first regular Crew Dragon flight — in November and is due to return to Earth next week.
The Crew-2 mission scheduled for launch Thursday will include Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and French-born mission specialist Thomas Pesquet, the first European Space Agency crew member to fly on Dragon. They will join NASA commander Shane Kimbrough and pilot Megan McArthur for a half-year on the space station.
NASA relied on Soyuz spacecraft for all crew transportation to and from the station from the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 until the start of astronaut launches by SpaceX last year.
NASA has paid the Russian government roughly $4 billion billion since 2006 to purchase Soyuz seats for astronauts from the United States and the station’s other international partners, according to a report in 2019 by NASA’s inspector general.
Flush with NASA money, Russian space contractors doubled the production of Soyuz crew capsules for launches beginning in 2009 to meet the demand for astronaut transportation to the space station. After NASA’s previous bulk purchase of Soyuz seats in 2017 expired, Russian officials cut back the Soyuz flight rate to two flights last year.
The Soyuz final seat NASA purchased from Russia was filled by astronaut Kate Rubins, who launched on a Soyuz spacecraft last October and landed with two Russian crewmates Saturday in Kazakhstan.
NASA arranged for another Soyuz seat on the most recent Russian crew launch April 9, but did not pay for the ride in cash. NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei launched on the mission after NASA booked the seat with the help of Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that brokers flights for space tourists and is planning its own private space station.
In exchange, Axiom will get a seat for one of it’s private customers on a future NASA-sponsored U.S. crew mission.
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WASHINGTON — The next commercial crew mission to the International Space Station passed its final review before its scheduled April 22 launch, with weather the only major issue.
At an April 20 briefing, NASA said the Crew-2 mission passed its launch readiness review, the final major review before launch. That allows NASA and SpaceX to proceed with a Falcon 9 launch of the Crew Dragon spacecraft Endeavour at 6:11 a.m. Eastern April 22 from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch has an instantaneous window.
Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said officials resolved the one technical issue remaining from the Crew-2 flight readiness review April 15. At that earlier review, SpaceX noted that on a number of recent Falcon 9 launches it loaded slightly more liquid oxygen (LOX) propellant than expected into the rocket’s first stage.
Stich said a technical review concluded that any additional liquid oxygen was “well within family” of analyses of the rocket, including additional loads on the rocket that the excess propellant might create. “We had an exception at the flight readiness review, and we closed that,” he said. He latest estimated that the additional liquid oxygen only accounted for “a very small percentage” of the total weight of the vehicle.
The Falcon 9 also performed a successful static-fire test April 17, followed a day later by a “dry dress rehearsal” where the four astronauts suited up, went to the pad and boarded the Crew Dragon for a practice countdown, although the vehicle itself was not fueled. “The crew is doing great. They’re really excited,” said Norm Knight, deputy manager of the flight operations directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The only outstanding issue discussed at the briefing is the weather. Brian Cizek, launch weather officer with the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron, projected an 80% chance of acceptable weather for launch April 22, and 90% if the launch is delayed a day. Winds are the primary concern for the first launch attempt.
However, those probabilities do not include weather at abort locations along the Eastern Seaboard. “Downrange weather is a little bit trickier,” Stich said, citing high winds and high waves in some of the abort locations. “Of the two days right now, I would say Friday looks a little bit better than Thursday.” He said NASA and SpaceX will evaluate the weather again 24 hours before the launch.
If the Crew-2 mission does launch on schedule April 22, the spacecraft will dock with the station at about 5:30 a.m. Eastern April 23. The four people on the spacecraft — NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet — will join the seven people currently on the station.
The station’s crew will be at 11 people through the departure of the Crew-1 spacecraft April 28, returning NASA’s Shannon Walker, Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins and JAXA’s Soichi Noguchi to Earth. That will require some adjustments to the station’s life support systems and temporary sleeping accommodations, said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager.
“The cool thing again is that the added crew member allows another set of hands on board to help us with research and utilization,” he said, referring to commercial crew’s ability to allow the station to host seven people at a time. “It’s an awesome time to be in human spaceflight.”
ISS - Expedition 65 Mission patch.
April 20, 2021
Science is in full swing aboard the International Space Station today as the Expedition 65 crew studies how microgravity affects the human body. Back on Earth, four Commercial Crew astronauts are less than two days away from launching to the orbiting lab from Florida.
Image above: The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon Endeavour atop stands at the Kennedy Space Center launch pad in Florida. Image Credit: SpaceX.
Blood samples, muscle scans and exercise were the subjects of Tuesday’s space research to learn how the human body adapts to weightlessness. To start the day, Flight Engineers Michael Hopkins and Soichi Noguchi collected their blood samples and stowed them in a science freezer for later analysis. Hopkins then joined Flight Engineer Victor Glover for muscle scans using an ultrasound device to understand how space impacts muscle tone, stiffness and elasticity.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei, who is in his second week aboard the station, attached sensors to his chest and worked out on a stationary bike for another human research experiment during the day. The exercise study measures an astronaut’s aerobic capacity and the effort required to perform strenuous activities such as spacewalks.
Image above: On Sunday, April 18, 2021, NASA astronauts Megan McArthur and Shane Kimbrough, ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, wearing SpaceX spacesuits, are seen as they prepare to depart the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for Launch Complex 39A during a dress rehearsal prior to the Crew-2 mission launch at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Crew-2 mission is the second operational mission of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. McArthur, Kimbrough, Pesquet, and Hoshide are scheduled to launch at 6:11 a.m. EDT on Thursday, April 22, from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. Image Credits: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani.
Another muscle study is observing changes in the genetic expression of muscles that take place in microgravity. Station Commander Shannon Walker of NASA peered at tiny worms in a microscope and recorded video as they wriggled through a specialized device that measures muscle strength. Muscle proteins change in space affecting muscle mass and strength and scientists are exploring therapies to offset this loss.
Cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy and Pyotr Dubrov juggled a variety of science and maintenance tasks in the station’s Russian segment today. Novitskiy powered down an atmospheric study then configured communications and ventilation gear. Dubrov inspected areas in the Russian modules and studied ways to maximize a workout in space.
International Space Station (ISS). Animation Credit: NASA
NASA and SpaceX mission managers are “go” for Thursday’s launch at 6:11 a.m. EDT of four Crew-2 astronauts to the space station. NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur will occupy the commander and pilot seats respectively inside the Crew Dragon Endeavour during the ride to their new home in space. They will be flanked by Mission Specialists Akihiko Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet when they dock on Friday at 5:30 a.m. to the Harmony module’s forward-facing international docking adapter. NASA TV will broadcast the Crew-2 mission continuously from launch to docking beginning Thursday at 2 a.m.
NASA TV: https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/nasatv/index.html
Expedition 65: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/expeditions/expedition65/index.html
Commercial Crew: https://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/crew/index.html
Muscle tone, stiffness and elasticity: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=7573
Exercise study: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=644
Genetic expression of muscles: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/experiments/explorer/Investigation.html?#id=7654
Workout in space: https://www.energia.ru/en/iss/researches/human/26.html
Harmony module: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/structure/elements/harmony
Space Station Research and Technology: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/research/overview.html
International Space Station (ISS): https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/index.html
Images (mentioned), Animation (mentioned), Text, Credits: NASA/Mark Garcia.
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NASA - Hubble Space Telescope patch.
April 20, 2021
This extraordinary image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope of the galaxy cluster Abell 2813 (also known as ACO 2813) has an almost delicate beauty, which also illustrates the remarkable physics at work within it. The image spectacularly demonstrates the concept of gravitational lensing.
Among the tiny dots, spirals, and ovals that are the galaxies belonging to the cluster, there are several distinct crescent shapes. These curved arcs of light aren’t curved galaxies. They are strong examples of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.
Gravitational lensing occurs when an object’s mass causes light to bend. The curved crescents and “S” shapes are light from galaxies that lie beyond Abell 2813. The galaxy cluster has so much mass that it acts as a gravitational lens, bending light from more distant galaxies around it. These distortions can appear as many different shapes, such as long lines or arcs.
This visual evidence, that mass causes light to bend, is famously used as proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Hubble Space Telescope (HST)
The image is a compilation of observations taken with the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3.
For more information about Hubble, visit:
Text Credits: European Space Agency (ESA)/NASA/Lynn Jenner/Image, Animation Credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, D. Coe.