National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has revealed one of its astronauts will accompany Russian astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) in the upcoming Soyuz mission. The Roscosmos will launch the mission on April 9, 2021. The American agency said on March 9 that Mark Vande Hei is the astronaut in the exchange program between the two agencies. Hei will join the crew that went to space in the Soyuz MS-08 mission in 2018 for the ISS second trip. In March 2018, the Soyuz MS-08  was the 137th flight of a Soyuz rocket.

Hei will be joined by Oleg Novitsky and Pyotr Dubrov on the mission. This flight will be Hei’s second trip to the ISS. In 2017, he joined Roscosmos cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin in the Expedition 53/54 mission with the Russian commanding the flight. Hei also served as a backup astronaut for NASA astronaut Kate Rubins in the Soyuz MS-17 mission launched in October 2020. Novitsky and Dubrov were also tagged as backup astronauts in this mission.

Space analysts and legislators raised eyebrows when NASA revealed its intention to tag one of its astronauts in the Russian mission a few days before its launch. At the time, Soyuz MS-17 had three crew members, all Roscosmos cosmonauts. According to officials, the main reason behind NASA’s late procurement was to minimize the risks associated with any interruption in the U.S crew member presence in the ISS.

“If there are problems with commercial crew vehicles, and would obtain the seat by providing similar in-kind services rather than a direct purchase from Roscosmos,” said NASA in a statement. The Russians were equally amazed by NASA’s last-minute request but termed it an earnest request. “NASA voiced its request only at the end of 2020, meaning the Russian side had to change the already confirmed and approved launch program,” said Roscosmos in a statement.

Hei replaced  Sergei Korsakov to cement the late agreement between the two agencies. “Roscosmos has taken this decision confirming its adherence to the joint agreements and the spirit of joint usage of the International Space Station,” Roscosmos added. Axiom Space, an American commercial spaceflight company, was contracted by NASA to provide the seat to be used by Vande Hei. The same day that NASA revealed the astronaut to join in the Roscosmos mission, it also published a separate statement revealing the Axiom-NASA partnership. The deal will also guarantee Axiom a seat in one of NASA’s future commercial crew missions.

“Because the services are determined to be of comparable value to both parties, the contract contains no exchange of funds,” said NASA in the statement. Roscosmos and NASA are yet to finalize the agreement, which will see both agencies exchange seats in the future. “We’re working toward the capability, and moving to have in place, the international agreements where we will be able to fly their crew members upon one of our two commercial crew providers and move forward into this new age,” said NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Kathy Lueders.

By Adam

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