The Russian presence on the International Space Station may be getting a little smaller. Typically, three Russian cosmonauts live on board the ISS at any given time, but Roscosmos, the country’s state-run space corporation, is thinking about reducing its ISS crew complement to just two cosmonauts.
"They’re exploring the option of going down to two crew on the Russian segment."
The news was first reported in the Russian newspaper Izvestia, which said the move was a way for Roscosmos to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Sergei Krikalev, director of human spaceflight at Roscosmos, said that a letter about the possible change had been sent to the participants of the ISS program. And yesterday during a press briefing, NASA confirmed that it had been informed of Russia’s potential plans. "They’re exploring the option of going down to two crew on the Russian segment," said Kenneth Todd, an ISS program representative. "They’ve made that known to the partnership."
The standard crew size for the ISS has stayed at six for the past few years. NASA maintains a three-person crew, which often includes an astronaut from one of the agency’s international partners. And Russia has managed its own crew of three cosmonauts on the ISS since 2010, according to the Planetary Society.
Russia has also provided the main source of transportation to the ISS since the Shuttle program ended in 2011, which has turned out to be a good source of income for Roscosmos. A few times a year, crews launch to the station in groups of three aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket. And NASA pays about $70 to $80 million for just one of its astronauts to ride aboard the Russian vehicle. However, that’s all about to change soon: starting in late 2017 and early 2018, NASA will begin launching its astronauts from the US again, on private spacecraft currently being developed by SpaceX and Boeing.
That means that eventually Roscosmos will no longer receive money from NASA for rides to space, cutting off what has become a lucrative deal for the corporation. Meanwhile, Roscosmos has run into major financial troubles. Due to the Russia’s economic concerns, the country has slashed the corporation’s 10-year budget to just over $20 billion. That’s barely more than NASA gets in a year.
Reducing the number of cosmonauts could both cut costs and serve as a money-making endeavor
With very little funding coming in, Roscosmos is looking for other ways to make money. And reducing the number of cosmonauts could both cut costs and serve as a money-making endeavor. Sending up less crew would free up room on the Soyuz, and that space could then be sold to paying customers who want to sent cargo up to the ISS or tourists looking to visit lower Earth orbit.
No decision has been made just yet, and NASA assured press yesterday that this doesn’t mean Roscosmos will be backing out of the ISS program prematurely. "One thing that we certainly always keep in the back of our mind [is] that our Russian partners are committed to the program at least through 2024," said Todd. "There’s no doubt they’re keeping that in mind as they work through whatever challenges they have within their system."