Russia mulls reducing ISS crew
Russia is considering reducing its International Space Station (ISS) crew from three to two, a Roscosmos official said last week. The proposal is seen by the agency as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs of the country’s space program.
On Thursday, Aug. 11, Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that Sergei Krikalev, director of manned programs at Roscosmos, has announced potential plans to reduce the number of cosmonauts and started soliciting this idea among the ISS international partners.
“We have sent letters to the ISS program participants, we want to hear their opinion on how we should reduce the crew and when, there are nuances here,” Krikalev told Izvestia. “We are interested in the opinion of Mission Control, the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, our partners in the ISS.”
Krikalev, who himself flew on two long-duration missions to the outpost in 2000 and 2005, noted that due to the fact that Russia now has fewer supply spacecraft being sent to the orbital laboratory, the reduction of the crew will help to boost the effectiveness of the ISS program and will lead to cost savings when it comes to the station’s maintenance. Currently, over the next 10 years, the country will provide about $3.88 billion of budgetary spending and some $194 million from off-budget sources for the upkeep of the ISS.
While the plans unveiled by the Russian side may seem surprising, NASA stated that it is monitoring this situation and, if necessary, it will try to wean Russia from this idea.
“It is strictly a proposal they have put on the table and we will look at it,” Kenneth Todd, NASA’s Operations Integration manager, said on Monday, Aug. 11 at a news conference. “We will look at it, as we do with all these kinds of things. We will trade it against whatever risk that might put into the program.”
Todd underlined that what NASA can do as a partner in the ISS program is to try to either accommodate the decision or help the Russians “realize why that is a bad thing”.
Russia is currently the only country capable of transporting astronauts to the ISS after NASA retired its Space Shuttle program in 2011. The situation would not change until at least late 2017, when orbital launches from the American soil are planned to be resumed, under the Commercial Crew program.
Usually, Russian Soyuz spacecraft send three-person crews to the ISS four times a year. Every mission consists of one or two cosmonauts. One spot is reserved for NASA and the remaining seat is occupied by an astronaut from other ISS program participants such as Japan, Canada, or ESA.
Although Russia has committed to support space station operations until 2024, the latest proposal raises questions as to whether these obligations will be fully fulfilled. Roscosmos’ shrinking budget and continuous cuts in their space program triggers concern that the country may be gradually withdrawing from the participation in the ISS project.
The plan to reduce the station crew could, in the future, jeopardize the nominal functioning of the orbital laboratory, due to the fact that some of the crucial ISS hardware can only be maintained and fixed by the Russian engineers.
“One thing that we certainly always keep in the back of our mind is that our Russian partners are committed to the program at least through 2024,” Todd said, “[There’s] no doubt they’re keeping that in mind as they work through whatever challenges they have within their system.”
Instead of strengthening cooperation with international partners on the ISS program, Russia intends to build a new space station. Last year, the Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that this station is planned to be completed by 2023. The new orbital outpost may be composed of some of the existing Russian ISS components.
Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.