Seven years after Russian bureaucrat and oligarch Dmitry Rogozin – faced with economic sanctions in response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine – suggested that the US send its astronauts to orbit with a trampoline, Rogozin – now head of Roscosms – says that his space agency has deemed that ‘trampoline’ safe enough to carry Russian cosmonauts.
That ‘trampoline’, of course, is SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Back in April 2014, NASA had yet to even award the main Commercial Crew contracts that would fund the development of two new redundant crewed spacecraft and launch solutions. Having prematurely canceled the Space Shuttle in 2011, the US had inexplicably forced itself – entirely of its own volition – into a situation where the only way it could crew the space station it helped spend $100 billion to build was to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, faced with economic sanctions for its illegal activities in the Crimean Peninsula that partially impacted Russia’s space industry, Roscosmos took advantage of its sudden monopoly over International Space Station (ISS) astronaut access and began aggressively increasing the prices NASA had to pay to crew the ISS. Ultimately, before SpaceX and Crew Dragon finally gave NASA an alternative, the space agency went from paying a minimum of $30M per seat in 2007 to a peak of $90M per seat in 2020.
While NASA Commercial Crew partner Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is also expected to cost the agency a staggering $90M per seat when it eventually comes online, a seat on SpaceX’s first seven Crew Dragon astronaut launches is expected to cost around $55M, saving NASA a considerable sum relative to Russia’s Soyuz pricing. It’s quite likely that that price will drop even further in the likely event that NASA purchases additional Crew Dragon launches in the near future.
As of today, there’s a real chance that SpaceX will complete all six initially contracted crew launches – Crew-1 through Crew-6 – by mid-2023 and before Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has completed a single operational astronaut launch. To ensure enough lead time to prepare for future Dragon astronaut launches, NASA would likely need to award SpaceX additional contracts by mid to late 2022.
Additionally, after a year or more of discussions between NASA and Roscosmos, Rogozin says that the agency is finally willing to seriously discuss a crew swap program that would see a cosmonaut and US astronaut regularly switch places on Dragon and Soyuz. While not technically necessary, the program has long been a practical symbol of national cooperation in the Space Shuttle era and also ensures that both space agencies have systems in place to cross-train astronauts in the event that a catastrophe grounds one country’s access to the ISS.
Ultimately, Roscosmos clearing Crew Dragon to launch its cosmonauts is perhaps the last and most hard-won stamp of approval SpaceX has secured from traditional space stalwarts, virtually all of which spent most of the 2000s and some of the 2010s belittling, discounting, or ignoring the company.