On Thursday, a Soyuz rocket is to transport the three astronauts to the International Space Station, departing from the Baikonur cosmodrome in the Kazakh desert. The coronavirus pandemic means that there isn't the usual amount of Wellwishers lining the streets to see the astronauts on their way, but the flight is historic. It marks the end of NASA's dependence on Russian missiles for manned space travel and the return of crewed launches to the United States. However, NASA says American astronauts may still go into space with a Soyuz capsule in the future.
Since NASA discontinued its space shuttle program in 2011, the Russian spaceport has been the only facility that operates manned flights from space from China. But that will change soon. SpaceX is preparing for its first NASA crewed mission to the space station, which could launch from Florida late next month. Boeing has also signed a crew flight contract with NASA, although the program was delayed by several months after a series of mistakes during a test mission last year. For the first time in almost a decade, NASA has the ability to send people into space.
"It's an amazing time to be with this agency," said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during a press conference in December. "We will launch American astronauts on American missiles from American soil. It's overdue. “
Chris Cassidy, who is going to the ISS for the third time, will be the only American astronaut on Thursday. His two flight attendants Ivan Vagner and Anatoly Ivanishin are both cosmonauts at Roscosmos, Russia's national space agency. Cassidy is a veteran of the shuttle program and flew a Soyuz rocket in 201
According to a NASA spokesman, Cassidy's headquarters is the last one that the agency bought from Roscosmos. "However, NASA is currently negotiating an additional seat with Roscosmos," the spokesman wrote in an email to WIRED. "Once NASA certifies the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft, NASA expects to work with Roscosmos and international partners to continue to fly mixed crews."
NASA's dependence on Russia to send people into space was expensive. A seat in a Soyuz capsule today costs $ 86 million, an increase of almost 400 percent in about a decade and a half. A 2016 NASA General Inspectorate report found the Roscosmos agency would pay more than $ 3.4 billion until SpaceX and Boeing were ready to fly. However, if you are the only one with access to the space station, you can calculate what you want.
Returning takeoffs to the United States can save NASA a lot of money on crew flights. Last year, the General Inspectorate determined that a seat in the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will cost only $ 55 million and a seat in the Boeing Starliner capsule will cost around $ 90 million. (Boeing officials disputed this number on the grounds that the company's capsule could also carry cargo worth a crew member, which it claims brings the seat price closer to $ 70 million.) Still, both price tags are still far cheaper than one seat the space shuttle.
The launch of Soyuz on Thursday marks the end of the longest period in NASA history since human spaceflight began, when the agency was unable to launch its own astronauts into space. The rebirth of American space crew is led by Doug Hurley, who piloted NASA's last shuttle mission and was one of two astronauts in SpaceX's first crew. Hurley and his crew partner Bob Behnken may be riding a kite in space this summer, but when it comes to mythical animals, it seems more of a phoenix.
More great WIRED stories