Reports that Russia will stop sending astronauts to the International Space Station in April 2019 have been somewhat exaggerated, although NASA is facing a race against time to get its new fleet of spacecraft up and running.
Speaking to reporters last Friday, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said Russia’s contractual obligations to send US astronauts to the ISS would end in April 2019, reported the Russian news website TASS.
"The landing of a Soyuz MS spacecraft in April will complete the fulfillment of our obligations under a contract with NASA related to the delivery of US astronauts to the ISS and their return from the station," he said.
US companies Boeing and SpaceX are developing spacecraft for NASA, to end their reliance on the Soyuz to take astronauts to the ISS, as part of the multi-billion dollar Commercial Crew Program. But both spacecraft have been delayed, with initial launches planned for 2016 now pushed back until well into 2019. These will be the first crewed launches from US soil since the final Space Shuttle flight in 2011.
The comments from Borisov are a little confusing, however, as NASA still has another flight to the ISS booked on a Soyuz in November 2019. That was purchased from Russia under a separate contract with Boeing, helping “smooth transition to US commercial transportation services.” Those astronauts will return in early 2020.
“In 2017, NASA exercised an option to purchase Soyuz transportation through Boeing for three crew members to fly on a Soyuz spacecraft in 2019 with a return in early 2020,” a NASA spokesperson told IFLScience.
That is still quite close, and highlights the danger NASA has of losing access to space temporarily. A report earlier this year found that any further delays to Boeing and SpaceX’s spacecraft, Starliner and Crew Dragon respectively, risked leaving NASA in the lurch.
“Additional delays could result in a gap in US access to the space station as NASA has contracted for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft only through November 2019,” that report stated. “NASA is considering potential options, but it does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted US access.”
Options are limited. Buying additional Soyuz seats is unlikely, as these are normally allocated about three years in advance. But NASA may opt for another option, which is to use the initial crewed flights of Starliner and Crew Dragon – once planned as test flights in Earth orbit – as full flights to the ISS.
The comments from Borisov therefore serve as a reminder that the clock is ticking. While safety is paramount, NASA will also be hoping to ensure a continued American presence in space since the first ISS mission in 2000, Expedition 1.