Why Russia might make do with one less cosmonaut

Roscosmos, the country’s state-run space corporation, says it might cut its International Space Station crew complement to just two cosmonauts.

Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP
In this photo provided by NASA, Expedition 48 Flight Engineers Oleg Skripochka, top left, and Alexey Ovchinin of Roscosmos, top center, along with Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams of NASA, top right, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, bottom left, cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin of Roscosmos, bottom center, and astronaut Takuya Onishi of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) are seen on the screen of Moscow Mission Control Center after Rubins, Ivanishin, and Onishi docked their Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft to the International Space Station on Saturday, July 9, 2016.

Russia may shrink its government-run space program from three cosmonauts living and working aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to just two. 

Billed as a cost-cutter, the suggestion is partly a response by Russia's space agency Roscosmos to how commercial space travel is changing the space exploration landscape.

The ISS has typically featured a six-person team: three Russians, two Americans, and generally one astronaut from Canada, Japan, or the 11-nation European Space Agency. They have travelled to the space station in sets of three aboard the Russian Soyuz shuttle since 2011, when NASA retired its own shuttle program and began paying Russia $60 million per person.

But Boeing and SpaceX are currently developing the technology to send American astronauts to space from American soil, meaning the shuttling service – and the revenue it produced for Roscosmos – could soon end when NASA begins shuttling its own astronauts skyward using private, commercial spacecraft.

That loss of revenue coincides painfully with internal budget constraints for Russian space travel. Plummeting oil prices and Russia's military incursion to the Crimea forced officials to slash the space budget by 60 percent, meaning its 10-year budget now hits $20.5 billion. For comparison, that barely exceeds NASA's budget for a year, writes Jason Davis for the Planetary Society. The three-person launches from Kazakhstan will also drop from four to perhaps two times per year once NASA changes its delivery model.

Trimming down the cosmonaut quota would not only reduce costs for the agency generally, it could offer enterprising Russian space directors a new source of revenue, as the extra space could be sold for cargo or tourist travel.

"Reducing the number of cosmonauts could both cut costs and serve as a money-making endeavor," Loren Grush wrote for The Verge. "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."

NASA said they were aware that Roscosmos was considering a personnel cut but stressed that it does not alter the dictates of the program or Russia's commitment to the joint research through 2024, Space.com reported. 

"At this point it's strictly a proposal they put on the table, and we'll look at it," said Kenny Todd, NASA's space station operations integration manager, in a media briefing. "As we do with all these kinds of things, we'll trade it against whatever risk it might put into the program.... And then from there we start looking at the options and see what we can do as a partnership to try to either accommodate it, or help them realize why that's a bad thing."

It would represent a significant change for Roscosmos, a space program that is making steady changes amid accusations of low ambition, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. In July, the program launched a two-day Soyuz mission with over 250 science experiments – including the first in-space DNA sequencing. This is the first of two missions to test improved Soyuz hardware.   

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