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Expedition 65 crew
The presence of NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei (right) alongside Russian cosmonauts training for the next Soyuz mission to the ISS raised questions if NASA might find a way to include Vande Hei on the crew.

Soyuz plans unclear as the 60th anniversary of Gagarin’s flight approaches


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This April will mark 60 years since Yuri Gagarin took humankind’s first tentative step into space on board Vostok. This presents a golden opportunity for Russia to celebrate this occasion by not only reflecting on past achievements and influence in human spaceflight, but also to showcase new milestones and to reignite public interest, and enthusiasm, for cosmonautics.

But will this happen? As we enter Gagarin’s anniversary year, all these things are possible, but at this moment detailed planning for Soyuz flights in 2021 seems unclear and even disorganized.

But with less than three months to go until that first launch, crewing plans for all three missions are in a fairly confused state. Politics, and money, appear to be driving the schedule, rather than space science or celebrating Gagarin.

Russia plans to launch three Soyuz MS flights and two expedition crews to the International Space Station in 2021 to support ISS operations, including the long-awaited arrival of the Nauka science module. Roscosmos, with entertainment and media partners, would like to send an “ordinary” citizen into space in the person of an as-yet-unknown actress and, at the end of the year, to restart orbital space tourism after a 12-year gap.

The three flights—Soyuz MS-18, -19, and -20—have been on the flight roster for a couple of years. The hardware is in the pipeline; Soyuz MS-18 and its carrier rocket are already at Baikonur. But with less than three months to go until that first launch, crewing plans for all three missions are in a fairly confused state. Politics, and money, appear to be driving the schedule, rather than space science or celebrating Gagarin.

Until a few months ago, plans seemed fairly straight forward. With NASA dependence upon Soyuz ending with the launch of astronaut Kate Rubins on Soyuz MS-17 in October 2020 (at an eye-watering cost of $90 million), MS-18 and MS-19 were to be routine crew exchange missions carrying all-Russian crews of ISS expedition members. Prime and back-up crews were provisionally in place.

Indeed, in November 2020, the crew of Oleg Novitsky, Pyotr Dubrov, and Sergei Korsakov had been revealed as the first all-Russian crew to fly to the ISS in its history. This was due to happen on April 9, 2021, on Soyuz MS-18, just three days before the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. Their backups would be Anton Shkaplerov, Andrei Babkin, and Dmitri Petelin, who, in the usual pattern of these things, would then fly the following mission MS-19, on October 5. All, except the two commanders, are rookies, but have all been trained for the arrival and commissioning of Nauka, currently scheduled for launch in July 2021 after more than a decade in development.

However, within a few weeks of that crew announcement, photographs were published, by both NASA and Roscosmos, showing five of the six cosmonauts mentioned above—all but Andrei Babkin— along with NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei in training in Houston. Vande Hei had been the backup to Rubins, and so had previously trained with Novitsky and Dubrov for MS-17. These images raised a few questions, and within days, rumors began to surface that Vande Hei might be flying on MS-18 in April. As NASA has no further Soyuz seats purchased, those rumors were that a potential deal was being negotiated by Axiom Space, presumably acting as an agent for NASA, or perhaps under some arrangement where Vande Hei would become a temporary employee of Axiom. This would seemingly be a mechanism to circumvent NASA procurement processes and conclude a deal quickly. With launch of Soyuz MS-18 less three months away, it is obvious that this matter needs to be concluded rapidly, but at the moment of writing, no official announcement has been made by any party, and photos continue to emerge of the all-Russian crew training in Moscow.

It is well known that the end of NASA purchasing Soyuz seats has left a substantial hole in Roscosmos finances, and although several tourist and commercial Soyuz flights are in the pipeline for 2021 to 2023, the cash from these is months to years away.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that both NASA and Roscosmos have previously committed to the principle of exchanging seats on each other’s spacecraft. This is known as the “barter scheme” and would mean that a cosmonaut would fly to the ISS on either a SpaceX Crew Dragon or Boeing Starliner, and NASA astronauts would continue to fly on Soyuz. No money would change hands, and the arrangement would mean that both agencies would be assured of a continuous presence on the ISS in the event of a major problem on a future crew exchange mission. Russia is not yet ready to begin this arrangement, presumably wanting to see the Dragon, and later the Starliner, a little more flight proven.

It is well known that the end of NASA purchasing Soyuz seats has left a substantial hole in Roscosmos finances, and although several tourist and commercial Soyuz flights are in the pipeline for 2021 to 2023, the cash from these is months to years away. So, the notion of selling a seat to Axiom is probably quite attractive to Roscosmos. The tradeoff is that there would be no prestigious all-Russian crew to celebrate Gagarin’s anniversary, and they would lose the presence of third crewman, for at least six months. As Novitisky and Dubrov are the most trained for the arrival of Nauka, it would probably be Sergei Korsakov who would miss out.

But why might NASA want to fly Vande Hei, at such short notice? The most logical answer is that there is a concern within NASA that if the scheduled exchange of US crews, Dragon Crew-1 to Crew-2 and scheduled for late April, was delayed or otherwise significantly disrupted, there are various scenarios where the crew of Soyuz MS-18 would be alone on ISS, with no NASA presence—exactly the situation which the future barter scheme is intended to prevent.

To muddy the waters further, earlier this month Andrei Babkin was removed from the backup crew on medical grounds. This latest development is very sad for Babkin. He had previously trained for the Nauka-related missions with Nikolai Tikhonov, who was grounded last year and who later left the cosmonaut squad after 14 years of flightless preparation. Babkin was replaced by the very experienced Oleg Artymev, who looks like an overqualified placeholder for a backup MS-18 crew that is unlikely to actually fly but which is needed to support the prime crew, less than three months before launch. After this assignment, he'll probably revert to his previous planned slot as commander of Soyuz MS-21, due in 2022.

The situation with the Soyuz MS-19 crew, due to launch on October 5, is even more confused. Nominally, it is currently the original Soyuz MS-18 back-up crew of Shkaplerov, Babkin, and Petelin that is provisionally assigned. Anton Shkaplerov's place, as commander, seems pretty solid, regardless of what else happens. It seems unlikely that Babkin will reappear so quickly after being removed from the previous back-up crew. If Vande Hei does fly, that will mean Korsakov is bumped from MS-18, so he becomes available for MS-19. So that would give us a new nominal crew of Shkaplerov, Korsakov and Petelin.

However, we first have to consider the proposed “movie in space” project named The Challenge (see “Russia looks for actress to steal Tom Cruise space movie thunder”, The Space Review, November 9, 2020). This involves sending a Russian actress to the ISS, which would require at least one seat to be freed up for the as-yet-unknown woman. Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, has thrown his weight behind this proposal as a means of popularixing spaceflight in Gagarin’s anniversary year, and is one of the executive producers named in the movie’s initial media release.

Several prominent spaceflight observers are concerned that Roscosmos appears to be putting entertainment before science and are diminishing the role and skills of professional cosmonauts.

From the outside, it is impossible to judge how many actresses or other qualified women have applied. This author has interviewed a couple. TV channel “First Channel” and Roscosmos encouraged participants to signify their participation by using the hashtag #хочувкосмос on social media. Around 80 have done so, and a handful of well-known actresses have confirmed their wish to enter. Otherwise, we have no clues on the level of interest.

However, the proposed movie has met with some opposition. Several prominent spaceflight observers are concerned that Roscosmos appears to be putting entertainment before science and are diminishing the role and skills of professional cosmonauts, some of whom have trained for a decade, while waiting for their first flight.

Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov also spoke out during an interview with RIA Novosti’s Inna Sidorkova, making it clear that he did not support the notion that Roscosmos might be bank-rolling a commercial project. “It is probably necessary to publicize the achievements of Russian cosmonautics… If they find sponsors who will pay for the actors’ stay in orbit and this does not interfere with the main scientific program of the ISS, then by all means, let them film… but, I can tell you for sure that as long as I am in this position, I will not ignore any proposal for funding a feature film at public expense.”

So, it looks very much as though political heavyweights on opposing sides of the argument will determine whether this interesting project, clearly conceived to upstage Tom Cruise, will happen. According to the timeline that Roscosmos and First Channel announced in November, a shortlist of actresses and other qualified women would be made by the end of January. So, once again, some updated information should be imminent.

In addition, the third seat on Soyuz MS-19 could, according to Roscosmos sources in December, also be occupied by another non-professional cosmonaut. There have been assumptions, among many commentators, that this would be another person connected to the movie. The name of the director, Klim Shipenko, has even appeared on Wikipedia and other more speculative websites. Certainly, someone will have to operate cameras and/or recording equipment, and if this is not a specialist, a cosmonaut will have to do it!

Other sources have suggested that a paying spaceflight participant could fly. Space Adventures have their pioneering dedicated “double-tourist” mission due to fly in December. However, Glavkosmos, the commercial arm of Roscosmos, is now offering Soyuz seats, in a low-key way, for 2021–2023 via their social media. This could be the start of them trying to compete with Space Adventures.

Connected to all these scenarios will be the flight duration for the MS-18 crew. As commander, Novitisky will doubtless return to Earth on MS-18 after MS-19 arrives, but who he’ll have with him is anyone's guess. If the movie happens, Dubrov would probably have to stay ISS for a year, until spring 2022, and perhaps Vande Hei too. Or maybe the third seat on MS-19 will be another NASA astronaut to replace him? Oleg Novitsky will probably return with any two from Korsakov, Dubrov, Vande Hei, actress, movie director, or spaceflight participant.

There is a long history of non-professional cosmonauts dropping out, for one reason or another, such as Daisuke Enomoto in 2006, Ko San in 2008, and Sarah Brightman in 2015.

In all this, there are several circumstances where Novitsky (landing) and Shkaplerov (launch) might have to fly with two non-professional passengers. This requires modifications to Soyuz software and special training, for which as far as we are aware only Alexander Misurkin and Sergei Prokopyev are currently getting in preparation for Soyuz MS-20. This also needs to be factored in to training, logistics, and risk assessment processes and planning. Nothing in any of this is easy.

And then there’s Soyuz MS-20, the Space Adventures double tourist mission, for which the contract was signed in February 2019, and due to launch on December 8 for a 12-day ISS visit. This will be the first Soyuz to carry two paying spaceflight participants and is being flown specifically for this purpose. As mentioned above, cosmonauts Misurkin and Prokopeyev have been working with Soyuz designers and engineers on modifications to the Soyuz MS interfaces to allow it to be flown by a single cosmonaut, with the spaceflight participants being literally passengers during the active phases of the flight.

Although no official announcement has been made, Misurkin is expected to command this mission. Two clients had signed up for the flight last summer, according to previous statements from both Roscosmos and Space Adventures, and their identities were due to be revealed in January. Although there are still a few days of January remaining, it is possible that this announcement will be delayed, as travel to and from Russia is still restricted due to COVID-19, and may not be a particularly attractive option for Space Adventure’s clients until the travel challenges and infection risks diminish.

And, is there any rush? Looking back at previous Space Adventures’ clients, in the period 2001 to 2009, they have generally been revealed, and begun training in Moscow, around six months before their planned launch. On that basis, it might be May or June until their identities need to be released. By that time, hopefully international travel issues will be more manageable. Space Adventures has previously said that announcements about the clients are made in conjunction with those clients, who clearly need to be ready to synchronize their own publicity and handle any media attention which may ensue.

The identities of the duo who signed the contracts have been unofficially identified for many months: an as-yet-unnamed Japanese pop singer and the Austrian aviator Johanna Maislinger. Both have signed up and should fly with support from commercial sponsors. It is possible that others candidates are in the background. Space Adventures will want to have backups, either to generate more revenue by selling the “backup experience” or to have genuine alternative candidates for the actual flight. There is a long history of non-professional cosmonauts dropping out, for one reason or another, such as Daisuke Enomoto in 2006, Ko San in 2008, and Sarah Brightman in 2015.

Indeed, it is known that Maislinger had some sort of accident towards the end of 2020 in which she suffered several fractures. It is obviously a possibility that this may remove her from contention for this mission, depending on her recovery. Neither Space Adventures nor her likely sponsors, German venture capital outfit Interstellar Ventures GmbH, would make any comment on any of this. As we said, it is possible that other candidates, who have managed to keep a lower profile, will emerge.

To add further complexity, it is highly likely that Roscosmos have other candidates not connected to Space Adventures ready to fly, including Italian military pilot Walter Villedei and Russian TV personality Tina Kandelaki. In view of Glavkosmos’ ambitions to facilitate crewed flights on Soyuz previously noted, it is easy to see that they could take over marketing of one or both of these seats, if Space Adventures doesn’t deliver their clients, duly certified and funded, within the contracted timeline.

What seems clear in all this is that, with funds from NASA drying up, Roscosmos is seeking to develop new income from their future Soyuz flights. Space Adventures will continue to play a role in this, and Glavkosmos should emerge as an alternative.

The ambitions of Glavkosmos suggest that there may be competition for Space Adventures in the future. There is a contract to fly another two Space Adventures clients in 2023, with an option for one of them to make an EVA, which would be a first for a non-professional cosmonaut. Perhaps there is enough room in the market for both, as Roscosmos continues to try and meet its obligations to the ISS program, perform some science, and monetize Soyuz seats when possible.

What seems clear in all this is that, with funds from NASA drying up, Roscosmos is seeking to develop new income from their future Soyuz flights. Space Adventures will continue to play a role in this, and Glavkosmos should emerge as an alternative. Some of this income generation will be driven by the deals that are already contracted, while others seem to be predicated on seizing opportunities on short notice as they arise.

Are the critics who suggest that Roscosmos is putting money ahead of science right? Will Roscosmos be able to put on a display befitting of the Gagarin anniversary, and which will put Russian cosmonautics in the spotlight? Will the Russian public pay more attention to human spaceflight in 2021 than in recent years? Perhaps, those are questions to be answered in January 2022.


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