Russia considers cutting its International Space Station (ISS) crew from three to two, a Roscosmos official said last week. The proposal is seen by the agency as a way to increase efficiency and reduce costs of the country’s space program.
Russian newspaper Izvestia reported on Thursday, Aug. 11, that Sergei Krikalev, director of manned programs at Roscosmos, has announced plans to reduce the number of ISS and started soliciting this idea among international partners.
"We have sent letters to the ISS program participants, we want to hear their opinion on how we should reduce the crew and when, there are nuances here. We are interested in the opinion of Mission Control, the Institute of Medical and Biological Problems, our partners in the ISS,” Krikalev told Izvestia.
He noted that due to the fact that Russia now has fewer supply spacecraft sent to the orbital laboratory, the reduction of the crew will help to boost the effectiveness of the ISS program and will lead to cost savings when it comes to the station’s maintenance. Currently, the country provides about $3.88 billion of budgetary spending and some $194 million from off-budget sources, for the upkeep of the ISS.
While the plans unveiled by the Russian side may seem surprising, NASA stated that it is monitoring this situation and if necessary, it will try to wean Russia from this idea.
“It is strictly a proposal they have put on the table and we will look at it,” Kenneth Todd, NASA’s Operations Integration manager, told a news conference on Monday, Aug. 11. “We will look at it, as we do with all these kinds of things. We will trade it against whatever risk that might put into the program,” he added.
Todd underlined that what NASA can do as a partner in the ISS program is to try to either accommodate the decision, or help the Russians “realize why that is a bad thing”.
Russia is currently the only country capable of transporting astronauts to ISS, after NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011. The situation will not change until apparently late 2017, when orbital launches from the American soil are planned to be resumed, under the Commercial Crew program.
Usually, Russian Soyuz spacecraft send three-person crews to the ISS, four times a year. Every mission consists of one or two cosmonauts, one spot is reserved for NASA and the remaining seat is occupied by an astronaut from other ISS program participants: Japan, Canada or ESA.
Although Russia has committed to support the Space Station operations until 2024, the latest proposal raises questions whether these obligations will be fully fulfilled. Roscosmos’ shrinking budget and continuous cuts in space programs trigger worries that the country may be gradually withdrawing from the participation in the ISS project. The plan to reduce the station crew could in the future jeopardize the nominal functioning of the orbital laboratory, due to the fact that some of the crucial ISS hardware can only be maintained and fixed by the Russian engineers.
"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. They're no doubt they're keeping that in mind as they work through whatever challenges they have within their system," Todd said.
Instead of strengthening cooperation with international partners on the ISS program, Russia intends to build its own space station. Last year, the Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that the station is planned to be completed by 2023. The new orbital outpost may be comprised of the existing Russian ISS components.