Commercial crew success prompts congratulations and criticism from Russia

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WASHINGTON — The successful launch of the first crewed orbital flight from the United States in nearly nine years has met with a mixed reaction from Russia, with formal congratulations from Russian leadership but skepticism from others.

While the overall success of the Demo-2 mission of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon won’t be known until after the spacecraft safely returns to Earth later this summer, its launch May 30 and docking with the International Space Station less than 24 hours later indicates NASA is on the verge of ending reliance on Russia’s Soyuz for transporting astronauts to and from the station.

That reliance stimulated the development of Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to give NASA its own means of getting astronauts to and from the station, ending payments to Roscosmos for Soyuz seats whose prices have steadily grown over the years to more than $90 million today.

At a post-launch press conference May 30, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said he had not heard from his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos. He said, though, that he had seen other comments by Rogozin that were “overwhelmingly congratulatory towards NASA and SpaceX.”

Those comments have not always been overwhelmingly congratulatory. In 2014, Rogozin, then Russia’s deputy prime minister, suggested retaliating against American sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea by restricting access to Soyuz seats. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” he tweeted.

Six years later, Elon Musk recalled that line. “The trampoline is working!” he said at that post-launch briefing.

Rogozin, in a pair of English-language tweets May 31, offered congratulations. “I wish @NASA team to successfully finish up reconstructing its national space transportation system to the ISS,” he wrote. “Please convey my sincere greetings to @elonmusk (I loved his joke) and @SpaceX team. Looking forward to further cooperation!”

Not everyone in Russia’s space program is as congratulatory as Rogozin’s public comments. The introduction of commercial crew vehicles will mean the end of a source of income for Roscosmos that, at its peak, brought the agency several hundred million dollars a year.

Astronauts from the U.S. and other ISS partners will continue to fly on Soyuz missions, but through a bartering arrangement that will, in turn, see Russian cosmonauts fly on commercial crew vehicles. That “mixed crew” arrangement is intended to ensure that there will be at least one Russian cosmonaut and one astronaut from the U.S., Canada, Europe or Japan on the station in event one class of vehicles was not available.

A veteran Russian cosmonaut, though, believes it’s too soon to start flying Russians on commercial crew vehicles. In an interview with the Russian network NSN published June 7, Pavel Vinogradov said that NASA was “running ahead of the steam engine” by offering to fly Russian cosmonauts on commercial vehicles that had yet to be fully tested and certified.

Vingradov, who flew on three missions to the Russian space station Mir and to the ISS, most recently in 2013, also claimed that Soyuz is cheaper than Crew Dragon, but did not state by how much. “And when it is said that everything in Dragon is cheap and reliable, to put it mildly, not so,” he said.

Vinogradov’s reluctance is echoed by other Russian officials. Former NASA astronaut Tom Stafford, who chairs the agency’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, said at a March 30 meeting that Russian officials he met with last December were reluctant to fly their cosmonauts on initial flights of commercial crew vehicles, also known as U.S. Crew Vehicles, or USCV.

“The Russian side noted that, prior to agreeing to the mixed crew plan, there needs to be successful USCV launches,” he said. “Roscosmos will consider participation after successful launches, but will not participate in the first launch of the vehicle.”

NASA and Musk, though, may get the last laugh. Musk responded to Rogozin’s congratulatory tweet with a response in Russian. “Thank you, sir, ha-ha. We look forward to mutually beneficial and prosperous long-term cooperation.”

A few days after the exchange, Rogozin’s Twitter account was rebranded as an official Roscosmos account, and many of his earlier inflammatory tweets had been deleted.