Russian Crew Reduction to Have Limited Effect on Space Station Operations

Jeff Williams, Alexey Ovchinin, Oleg Skripochka
NASA astronaut Jeff Williams (left) and Roscosmos cosmonauts Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka after their return to Earth Sept. 7. Roscosmos is considering reducing its crew complement on the ISS from three to two next year. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

WASHINGTON — An anticipated decision by Russia's space agency to temporarily reduce the size of its crew on the International Space Station should not have a major effect on NASA's operations there, an agency official said.

Russian media reported Sept. 14 that Roscosmos plans to reduce the Russian crew complement on the ISS from three to two, starting in March 2017. A final decision and formal announcement was expected this week, prior to the Sept. 23 launch of a new crew on a Soyuz spacecraft. However, Roscosmos announced Sept. 17 that the launch was being delayed because of technical issues, perhaps until early October.

The reduction in crew is intended to save money until the launch of a Multipurpose Laboratory Module, a long-delayed Russian element of the ISS now scheduled for launch in late 2017. A two-person Russian crew would allow Roscosmos to cut one of four Progress cargo resupply missions to the ISS planned for 2017.

Roscosmos has not formally confirmed those plans, but has made the other ISS partners aware of its proposal. "We've received a letter from them saying that's their plan," Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said in an interview during the AIAA Space 2016 conference Sept. 15 in Long Beach, California.

Gerstenmaier said that an agency analysis concluded the effects on ISS operations of Russia reducing its crew to be minimal. "I don't think it will be a big impact to us overall," he said. "But we're working through all the details."

He noted that two cosmonauts are enough to perform maintenance on the Russian segment of the station, and it won't affect most research on the station. "We can work it out fine," he said. "The research plan is still pretty strong."

One exception, he said, is in studies of human health, as scientists in effect lose one research subject to understand the effects of weightlessness on the human body. "We'll figure out a way to get some more Russian data," he said.

Originally published on SpaceNews.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.