Rogozin and Melroy
Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin (left) speaks at a press conference Oct. 25 along with NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy (right) and an interpreter. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

DUBAI, U.A.E. — The head of Roscosmos says he is now satisfied that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is safe enough to carry Russian cosmonauts, clearing a major obstacle for an agreement to exchange seats between Soyuz and commercial crew vehicles.

Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency, said in a press conference during the 72nd International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 25 that he no longer had reservations about flying cosmonauts on Crew Dragon as that spacecraft nears the end of its second long-duration mission at the International Space Station.

“In our view, SpaceX has already acquired enough experience for us to be able to put our cosmonauts on Crew Dragon,” he said through a translator.

He said the topic would come up during a meeting with NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy scheduled for Oct. 26 during the conference. “I believe we will be in a position to discuss candidates who may be flying to the space station on board the Crew Dragon—Russian cosmonauts, and American astronauts who will be flying to the space station on Russian spacecraft.”

Rogozin and others at Roscosmos had previously said they needed more evidence that Crew Dragon was safe enough for Russian cosmonauts, even after the spacecraft successfully carried NASA astronauts on the Demo-2 mission in mid-2020 and the subsequent Crew-1 and Crew-2 missions. Crew Dragon has also flown a commercial mission, Inspiration4, with four people on board.

Rogozin’s comments were welcome news to Melroy, who was also participating in the press conference. “I think they’ve been very clear from the beginning that they feel strongly, and we understand completely, that because they don’t have as much insight as we do,” she said in an interview after the press conference, “they have an expectation that there should be several flights before they feel confident in the performance of the vehicle. At this point, we’re having that conversation.”

That confidence, though, doesn’t mean an agreement between NASA and Roscosmos to barter seats is a done deal. “The important thing is that an agreement has to work for both of us,” she said. “There are considerations that we have and they have as well.”

NASA has sought to barter seats to create “mixed crews” of at least one NASA astronaut and one Roscosmos cosmonaut on each mission. That would ensure both countries would have a presence on the station, and ability to maintain their separate systems, if either Soyuz or commercial crew vehicles are grounded for an extended period.

The earliest a Russian cosmonaut could fly on a Crew Dragon would be the Crew-5 mission in the second half of 2022. Similarly, the next time a NASA astronaut could fly on a Soyuz would be in the fall of 2022, since NASA has decided not to acquire a seat on the Soyuz MS-21 launching in March 2022.

Crew-3 ready for launch

Hours after Rogozin offered his endorsement of Crew Dragon, NASA and SpaceX managers approved plans for the next launch of the spacecraft. NASA said late Oct. 25 that the Crew-3 mission had passed its flight readiness review ahead of its launch Oct. 31 from the Kennedy Space Center.

At a briefing, NASA and SpaceX officials said they were still wrapping up some open items on the spacecraft linked to a minor issue with the waste management system on Crew Dragon during the Inspiration4 mission. A tube came disconnected in a storage tank for urine, allowing liquid to leak into a fan system, said Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX vice president for build and flight reliability.

He said that didn’t cause a problem during the flight itself, but during inspections after landing technicians found contamination underneath the floor of the capsule, caused by a chemical in the waste storage tank called Oxone. Inspections of the Crew-2 Crew Dragon spacecraft, currently docked to the station, also showed evidence of corrosion, but that corrosion does not grow over time based on lab tests in similar environmental conditions. Final checks to confirm there are no safety issues will be completed before the final launch readiness review Oct. 29.

While this is not a major issue, Gerstenmaier said it’s evidence of the need to avoid complacency that could result in more significant safety lapses. He said that, after finding the root cause of an improperly glued tube in a waste management system, workers not only corrected that problem but also looked at interfaces that could have similar problems.

“It’s one way of challenging people to stay hungry, stay paranoid,” he said, “and don’t ever assume you know what’s going to happen with the vehicle.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...