The Soyuz MS-02 spacecraft being prepared for launch in September. A problem with the spacecraft found only after it was placed inside its payload fairing has delayed its launch until the end of October. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Officials with the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos said Sept. 26 they planned to reduce the size of their crew on the International Space Station next year from three to two.

The comments, by Roscosmos head Igor Komarov during a press conference at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) here, confirmed Russian media reports dating back to August that Russia would reduce its crew to save money.

“We checked and found that we can complete all of our programs with two cosmonauts,” Komarov said. “That’s when we decided to optimize our crew to two for the next year.”

The reduction in crew will start in March of next year, Sergei Krikalev, a former cosmonaut and current executive director of piloted spaceflight for Roscosmos, told reporters after the press conference. It will continue until the launch of a new Multipurpose Laboratory Module (MLM) to the station, which will require Russia to restore that third crewmember.

“Two people is enough to do maintenance and science” in the current station configuration, Krikalev said. “When we have a new module, we will go back to three people.”

The launch of the MLM, which has suffered a number of delays, is now planned for late 2017. Krikalev said, though, that the module may not be launched until early 2018.

That drop in crew size is not expected to affect operations on the rest of the ISS. In an interview earlier in September, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that the agency didn’t expect a major effect on NASA’s use of the station should Russia proceed with its crew reduction plans, other than losing one subject for human research studies.

Reducing the crew will allow Russia to save money by cutting one Progress flight per year, although Krikalev said a decision was made last year to cut the number of Progress flights. “We reduced the number of Progress flights from four to three last year,” he said.

Cutting the crew size temporarily will also open seats on Soyuz flights to and from the station. “We discussed with our partners to maybe use this free seat for them,” Komarov said. “We expect some interest from that side.” Krikalev said later he did not expect Russia to attempt to sell the seat, as it has done to space tourists in the past.

Besides the crew reduction plans, Roscosmos is dealing with a delay in the next Soyuz launch to the ISS. That spacecraft, Soyuz MS-02, was scheduled to launch Sept. 23 to carry one NASA astronaut and two Russian cosmonauts, but the flight was postponed because of a problem with the Soyuz spacecraft.

Komarov did not discuss the specific technical details of the problem, but said Roscosmos was taking steps to correct it. “We plan to launch by the end of October,” he said. “We hope that everything is going to be fine.”

Despite the crew cutback and Soyuz delays, Russian officials at the IAC remained optimistic about the future of its human spaceflight program. In a separate talk at the conference, Vladimir Solntsev, general director of Russian space firm RSC Energia, laid out an ambitious plan of future human missions, including a goal of a human lunar landing by 2030.

The MLM and two other modules to be added to the ISS in the coming years, a docking node and the Scientific Power Module, could form the core of a Russian space station after the ISS is retired, he said. “We plan to keep our presence in low Earth orbit” even if the ISS is retired, he said, adding the future Russian station would be open to international partners.

Solntsev said Russia is making good progress on the development of Federation, a crewed spacecraft that will eventually replace the Soyuz. Federation will feature three times the internal volume of the Soyuz and be able to carry four people, and up to six in emergencies. An uncrewed test flight to the ISS is scheduled for 2021, followed by a crewed mission in 2023.

He added that Russia is keeping lines of communication open with China, whose space program plans to develop its own space station by the early 2020s. A delegation from Energia returned from meetings in China last week, he said, where they discussed a variety of international cooperation options. “They discussed possible cooperation on new stations, on the Chinese station and the Russian station,” he said.

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...