After years of blowing SpaceX off, Russia has booked a ride for one of its cosmonauts on the SpaceX Crew Dragon. In exchange, Russia will fly an American astronaut on the Russian Soyuz.
Cosmonaut Anna Kikina will fly on the Crew Dragon in fall 2022. This will be her first spaceflight.
Russia’s Roscosmos announced the news on its Twitter account on Wednesday. In a statement, Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin said only that Kikina would fly on “an American spacecraft.”
Due to delays in the development of competing privately owned spacecraft like Boeing’s Starliner, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is currently the only American spacecraft rated to carry crew members.
NASA currently pays SpaceX $55 million per seat for crewed flights to the International Space Station. Seats on the Soyuz could cost NASA as much as $90 million.
SpaceX has already launched four crewed missions to the International Space Station as part of a contract that was recently expanded to include a total of nine flights. The first flight, Demo-2, launched in May 2020.
NASA plans to make two flights to the International Space Station on privately owned spacecraft per year as part of the Commercial Crew Program. When Boeing gets its entry into the Commercial Crew Program operational, its Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will basically take turns ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.
Russia has previously been critical of SpaceX, likely due to its breaking of Roscosmos’ monopoly on crewed spaceflight, which existed from the time NASA ended the Space Shuttle program in 2011 until the launch of Demo-2.
During times of diplomatic tension between Russia and the United States, Russian officials suggested that NASA could use a trampoline to get to the International Space Station as a response to sanctions against the Russian space program.
After the successful Demo-2 launch, Elon Musk quipped in a press conference, “The trampoline is working.”
Although many Russian officials were still skeptical, Russian Parliament member Alexey Pushkov obliquely suggested that it was not a big deal and not all a bad thing: “This is a flight to the International Space Station, not to Mars. … Russia needs spaces [on the Soyuz] for its own young cosmonauts.”
SpaceX plans to eventually send crews to Mars on the Starship spacecraft, which is currently in development. It was forced to delay the orbital test of a Starship prototype until January 2022 at the earliest due to regulatory red tape.
On the positive side, SpaceX has conducted 28 launches this year and has two more launches scheduled for December 14 and December 21. It also continues to develop its Starlink satellite Internet service, with deals with some communities like the Cherokee Nation and countries like Chile to bring Internet access to remote or impoverished communities.
With the Crew Dragon now operational, NASA has scaled back on paying to fly astronauts on the Soyuz. The last astronaut on the Soyuz was Mark Vande Hei, who launched on a Soyuz on April 9.
NASA has not yet replied to requests for comment or announced which astronaut will fly on the Soyuz.