Posted on October 9, 2022
On October 6, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket set off from Cape Canaveral in Florida, carrying in its Crew Dragon capsule, “Endurance” (also designed and produced by SpaceX), four astronauts, including two Americans (a female commander), a Japanese and a Russian, Anna Kikina (“mission specialist”). Docking with the International Space Station, the ISS, will take place on October 7 at 11:00 a.m.
Anna Kikina is not a tourist but a true cosmonaut, selected as such in 2012. She is also an engineer qualified to work on Russian teams integrated into the ISS. Her flight is part of the routine of a continuous and necessary presence of Russians on board. It was scheduled since June 2020 and we can already say that she will have successors to her (and there are already two other Russians on board… who will fall before her).
This is the first time in twenty years that a Russian cosmonaut has lifted off from US soil. The time before, he was an American who had left Russia on a Soyuz spacecraft. But above all, what is worrying a priori given the context of the war, is that both sides find this (almost) normal, while most Western countries with prudish leaders refuse to receive tourists, Russians or musicians to play. in their orchestras.
In fact, it must be clearly understood that the ISS could not operate without Russian equipment and the continued presence of Russian personnel on board to operate it. The ISS is made up of 16 pressurized modules, including six Russian, eight American, one Japanese and one European. Thus, the International Space Station is very much a US-Russian station with marginal participation from Japan and Europe (more precisely, ESA). More importantly, one of the Russian modules, “Zvezda”, is the station’s engine room. The equipment it contains, and which the Russians control, makes it possible in particular to return to orbit when the Earth’s gravity inexorably pulls the mass of the entire ISS towards the Earth’s surface, that is, much earlier, towards ever denser layers of atmosphere in which a machine traveling at about 28,000 km per hour would burn almost completely (but not all) after being disassembled and destroyed. For the record, the ISS evolves between 330 and 420 km in altitude.
In fact, when the ISS was launched in 1993, the United States, which had planned to build a space station since the early 1980s, did not have the experience (at least of a truly functional station) and they were very happy. make an alliance at this level with the Russians who had just imploded the USSR and whom they considered a second-rate power, benefiting from much of their technology without having to develop it themselves. At that time, the Russians were at the forefront in the field of orbital stations, having successfully operated their MIR station for several years (1986 to 2001). The Americans had tried their own experiment with their Skylab in 1973/74, but this mini-station (a single module) could not stay in orbit. Also, before the implosion of the USSR, the Russians had prepared a MIR2 station and Zvezda was going to be the heart of it. Therefore, they could continue their activity and especially their research in astronautics technology by experimenting with a new engine, which would have been impossible in their internal political context of 1993.
So, American-Russian cooperation continues today in this field because the Americans do not want to say that they depend on the Russians and because the Russians are pleased to continue working on the ISS in the context of preparing a new all-Russian station. (obviously much more modern than the MIR2) whose first module could be launched between 2025 and 2026. This station could be operational in 2028. It is implicit that a Russian withdrawal from the ISS would mean the rapid end of the ISS in very bad conditions (including the security on the ground) since the Americans could no longer maneuver it and since it is unthinkable to disassemble the gigantic mechanism that it ended up forming, to replace the Zvezda module (to which all the others are connected) with an American module that does not exist today.
So against bad luck we do it with a good heart and a smile, even if it’s a little tense!
Ultimately, the Americans have an interest in demonstrating their ability to perform feats in space in terms of manned space flight if they want to maintain their political prestige in this area. However, it is not clear that they can do so.
There are two possible exits, Artemis or Starship.
Artemis is the huge rocket built by ULA under the control of NASA, which could make it possible to repeat the feats of the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo missions that allowed the incursions to the Moon in the 1960s. But we have seen that its launch was postponed from mid-September to the end of September and then in early November. After a very long preparation (early 2005), it is the least worrying.
Starship, a futuristic wonder prepared by SpaceX under the direction of Elon Musk, is also expected to make its first orbital flight around the Earth in November. SpaceX has demonstrated its capabilities by flying and above all by recovering and then reusing its launchers, Falcon9 and Falcon Heavy. But with Starship you go up several rungs on the difficulty ladder. The Starship can fly, it has been tested (flight SN15) but if it has achieved some static firing (on the ground) its SuperHeavy launcher that must put it into orbit has not yet shown that it can sustain the simultaneous firing of enough engines to transport the mass of his ship, the Starship, into space. The risk of failure of one motor is much less unlikely when the number is increased and the consequences for the others can be catastrophic.
This is what worries the Americans, much more than if the Russians continue with the greatest possible discretion (for them) boarding “their” ISS.
Russian modules: http://www.russianspaceweb.com/iss_russia.html