The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Igor Komarov discusses the state of Roscosmos during a press conference at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, April 4. (credit: J. Foust)

The Roscosmos view of the future of human spaceflight

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On Thursday, April 20, a Soyuz rocket will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, placing the Soyuz MS-04 spacecraft in orbit bound for the International Space Station. It will be the latest in a routine series of missions, flying four times a year, ferrying new crews to the space station.

This mission, though, will be a little different than other recent Soyuz flights. On board the spacecraft will be NASA astronaut Jack Fisher and Roscosmos cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. The third Soyuz seat, which on a normal crew rotation would be filled by another Russian cosmonaut, will go unused.

“When I joined the Russian space agency Roscosmos, one of the big problems was its delays,” Komarov said of MLM. “We’ve had problems with this project.”

That is part of a decision made months ago by Roscosmos to decrease the size of the Russian crew, temporarily, from three to two as it awaits the long-delayed launch of new modules for the station’s Russian segment. The crew size will be at five until this fall, when NASA, taking advantage of the spare seat through a complex arrangement involving Boeing and RSC Energia, will add a fourth crewmember to the US segment of the station.

The current situation of Russia’s participation on the ISS was one of a number of topics addressed by the head of Roscosmos, Igor Komarov, in a rare press conference with US and other Western media April 4 during the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Komarov said his appearance at the conference, which included the press conference and a panel of space agency leaders earlier that day, was his first visit to the US since taking over the Russian state space corporation more than two years ago.

Komarov confirmed that Russia’s decision to reduce the crew was linked to delays in the development of the Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM), also known as Nauka. “When I joined the Russian space agency Roscosmos, one of the big problems was its delays,” he said of MLM. “We’ve had problems with this project.”

He didn’t elaborate on the nature of the delays. However, RussianSpaceWeb reported earlier this month that the propellant tanks for the module are contaminated with metallic dust, requiring engineers to cut open each tank to remove the dust without damaging the internal bladder of each tank that will contain the propellant itself. That could take up to a year of additional work for a module whose launch is already years overdue.

Komarov, at the briefing, offered more optimistic assessment of the status of MLM. “We planned initially at the end of December to make this launch,” he said. “We now see that it is more complicated than we expected. There are some issues that we need to solve. I don’t expect a big delay.” He now expects a launch in the first half of 2018.

MLM is the first of three modules that Russia plans to add to its portion of the ISS. MLM will be followed by a node module, known as Prichal, and then a science and power module.

“Russia has experience with long-duration flights,” Krikalev said. Regarding another year-long mission, “scientists don’t think we really need it.”

But without MLM or those other modules in orbit, Roscosmos concluded that they did not need three cosmonauts on the station right now. “Because MLM is delayed, we decided that it’s more efficient to have, at this point, two crewmembers,” said Sergei Krikalev, the former cosmonaut who is now executive director of human spaceflight programs at Roscosmos, at the briefing. Russia will increase its crew back to three once MLM is in place, he said.

“It was a good decision,” Komarov said, suggesting by doing so would give other countries a chance to access the station. Right now, though, that crew slot that would have been occupied by a Russian cosmonaut will instead go to a NASA astronaut, not offered to another country or even a space tourist.

The last time there were open seats available on a Soyuz flight was in 2015, when the one-year mission of NASA’s Scott Kelly and Roscosmos’s Mikhail Kornienko freed up two seats on the Soyuz TMA-18M flight. One was occupied by Andreas Mogensen, an ESA astronaut, for a short-duration visit to the ISS, returning on the Soyuz TMA-16M spacecraft. The other was to go to a tourist, singer Sarah Brightman, but she backed out several months before the launch; a Kazakh cosmonaut, Aidyn Aimbetov, took her slot.

NASA has raised the possibility of doing another one-year mission, to collect additional data on the effects of long-duration spaceflight. Depending on the timing of the mission, it could also free up a seat around the time NASA seeks to transition from Soyuz to commercial crew vehicles, buying the agency some time (and saving some money) if the new vehicles are further delayed.

However, don’t expect Roscosmos to join NASA on another one-year mission is that’s the case. “For the future, we will check with our scientists and specialists” about another similar mission, Komarov said. “The NASA side is more optimistic about the future of these missions. Our scientists are more conservative.”

“Russia has experience with long-duration flights,” Krikalev said, noting the first one-year mission flown by a Russian dates back to the former Soviet space program in the late 1980s on the Mir space station. Regarding another year-long mission, he said, “scientists don’t think we really need it.”

There is also a question about the future of the ISS itself. NASA, Roscosmos, and the other partners have agreed to extend operations of the station through 2024, but there are already rumblings about another extension, perhaps to 2028 or even later.

Komarov said that, despite statements by Russian officials in the past about taking part of the ISS Russian segment to form the core of a standalone Russian station after 2024, Roscosmos is open to further extending the ISS. “We are now discussing an extension to 2028,” he said.

He said there’s still a need for a platform in low Earth orbit to continue research, even as the US and others think about commercializing more aspects of the station. “We have the same decision,” he said. “Our parliament asks the same [questions], raising the efficiency of the utilization of the ISS, making more experiments, and bringing more results for the investment the government is making.”

“We should go to the Moon,” Komarov said. “It’s better to be solving all these problems on the Moon before going to Mars.”

He indicated that planning for a new space station was more of a backup plan to sure a continued Russian presence in low Earth orbit should the ISS end in 2024. “We adjusted and made some minor changes for new modules to secure energy and other issues,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t want to continue our cooperation. We just want to be on the safe side.”

Although Russia wants to continue its presence in low Earth orbit, Komarov said the country had an interest in humans beyond Earth orbit. And while the US may be weighing a return to the Moon versus missions to Mars as the Trump Administration contemplates potential changes to NASA’s current strategy, Komarov seemed open to both.

“We should go to the Moon,” he said. “It’s what we consider very logical: landing, return back, and then the promise to make a base maybe in the future. It’s better to be solving all these problems on the Moon before going to Mars.”

Komarov didn’t discuss any plans Russia has to go to the Moon, and how they might fit into Roscosmos’s constrained budgets. Russia does have a plan for robotic lunar missions, including landers and sample return missions. He added that Roscosmos was in “stages of discussion” with the European Space Agency about ESA’s “Moon Village” concept of a lunar base involving various international and commercial partners.

Mars remains of interest to Roscosmos, though. “Going to Mars is a great idea,” Komarov said. “We need to understand that this is not an easy experiment. There are a lot of issues that need to be solved.”

Among those issues, he said, were life-support systems for long-durations missions to Mars and back, and radiation protection for those crews. “If we bring people to Mars, they should be alive,” he said.

Komarov didn’t specify what role, if any, Russia might take in a human Mars mission led by NASA, beyond ongoing discussions among international space agencies regarding exploration in general. “If we discuss a journey to Mars, what are the plans? This is a consistent problem,” he said later.