NASA and Roscosmos officials restate intent to operate ISS after 2024

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WASHINGTON — NASA and Roscosmos reiterated that they expect to continue operations of the International Space Station after 2024 as NASA continues to push for an extension to 2030.

At an Aug. 4 briefing about the upcoming SpaceX Crew-5 mission to the ISS, officials with the two agencies played down comments July 26 by Yuri Borisov, new head of Roscosmos, initially interpreted to mean that Russia would withdraw from the partnership as soon as 2024. NASA officials said at the time they had received no notification of any planned withdrawal, and Borisov later said Russia would withdraw only at some unspecified time after 2024.

“Perhaps something was lost in the translation,” said Sergei Krikalev, executive director of human space flight programs at Roscosmos, himself speaking through an interpreter. “The statement actually said that Russia will not pull out of the program until after 2024. This means that, up until the end of 2024, there will be no changes.”

“‘After 2024’ could mean 2025, 2028 or 2030,” he added. “The decision about the termination of the program will be based on the technical condition of the station and assessment of outcomes.”

Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said the Multilateral Control Board of ISS partners that oversees the station met last week. That meeting, she said, featured discussion of the provision in a new NASA authorization bill Congress passed last week that formally approves an extension of ISS operations to 2030.

“All the other governments are working through their plans” for an extension, she said. “It was very helpful to hear where everyone was with their progress. All of us are looking at the planning, laying in the next steps for getting approval.”

Part of that ongoing work includes implementing the agreement for integrated crews between NASA and Roscosmos announced July 15. NASA astronaut Frank Rubio will fly on the Soyuz MS-22 mission launching Sept. 21, while Roscosmos cosmonaut Anna Kikina will be on Crew-5. While the Crew-5 mission is currently scheduled to launch no earlier than Sept. 29, NASA officials said it was likely that the launch would be pushed back a few days to provide more spacing with the Soyuz mission.

The current NASA-Roscosmos agreement on integrated crews covers one mission a year in 2022 through 2024, said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, and only involves exchanges between Soyuz and Crew Dragon missions.

He said NASA will work to add Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to the agreement after its Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission, the first time the spacecraft will launch with astronauts on board. “Our long-term goal is to have integrated crews on all the missions,” he said. “We are just doing this in steps.”

The CFT mission was tentatively planned for late this year, but Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said it will likely take place early next year instead. Review of data from an uncrewed test flight called OFT-2 in May will wrap up in a few weeks, after which NASA and Boeing will work to set a launch date for CFT.

Dragon issues

Crew-5 was scheduled to launch in early September, but NASA announced July 21 it was delaying the launch to no earlier than Sept. 29 after the Falcon 9 booster that will launch the mission was damaged during shipment from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, factory to its McGregor, Texas, test site.

The booster hit a bridge during transport, said Benji Reed, SpaceX senior director for human spaceflight. “It was a fairly minor incursion, but it still caused some damage,” he said.

SpaceX decided to replace the composite interstage at the top of the booster and other components. “We went through a very robust process of analysis and test to assure that stage would be ready to go and be absolutely safe to fly the crew,” he said. The booster, which will be making its first flight on Crew-5, is going through a full round of qualification tests in McGregor.

Reed also revealed that one of four main parachute canopies suffered minor damage on the Crew Dragon spacecraft that returned on the Crew-3 mission in May. “There was no impact that we could see in terms of overall performance of the vehicle,” he said. “Certainly, the crew on Crew-3 during their return were never at risk.”

He said the company is doing testing to better understand what happened and make sure there are no other, more serious issues with the parachute system, but that there was no risk for either the astronauts who will return on the Crew Dragon spacecraft docked to the station for Crew-4 or for the upcoming Crew-5 mission.

Dragon debris

Reed confirmed that debris found in Australia last month was from another Crew Dragon spacecraft. The debris, which reentered July 9, was found in a sheep paddock in rural New South Wales and was linked to the trunk section of the Crew-1 mission. That trunk section is jettisoned before reentry and left in an orbit that decays gradually from atmospheric drag.

“We have a team going there to check that out,” he said, with the company working closely with the U.S. State Department, Federal Aviation Administration and Australian Space Agency.

The debris, which included several large pieces, alarmed some, but Reed argued it did not appear to be out of the ordinary. “This was all within the expected analyzed space of what can happen.”

“We always look for ways we can improve things,” he added, “but this was within analyzed space, within expectations.”