With the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launch this weekend, NASA now has the capability to launch its own astronauts from the US once again — and that means changes are in store for the future of the International Space Station. Soon, a new suite of vehicles could be regularly flying people to the station from the Florida coast, along with the Russian Soyuz rocket that has been solely responsible for taking humans to the outpost since 2011.
This will be a new era of human spaceflight where private vehicles and state-operated vehicles fly along aside one another, getting humans into space, and to the ISS. Here’s how traffic to the space station will evolve as SpaceX and NASA’s other commercial partner, Boeing, start sending people to and from the ISS on a regular basis.
The Russian relationship
Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA and Russia’s space corporation, Roscosmos, have been locked in a symbiotic relationship. NASA needed Russia in order to get its own astronauts and international partners to the International Space Station. Russia benefitted from NASA’s money — one seat on Russia’s Soyuz capsule runs NASA upward of $80 million.
That’s been good for the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos. “Mutual dependency actually makes for a pretty good working relationship,” Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), tells The Verge. “By all accounts, everyone I’ve talked to at NASA has said that even as the geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia has deteriorated, their relationship — when it comes to the ISS — has remained as strong as ever.”
Now that NASA has a brand-new ride, that once codependent relationship between the space agencies is going to evolve. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said that he has had discussions with Dmitry Rogozin, director general of Roscosmos, about trading seats on each nation’s vehicles moving forward, rather than purchasing them. “If we are going to maintain a complement of both Russian and American astronauts on board, then we need to be willing to launch Russian cosmonauts on Commercial Crew, and they need to be willing to launch American astronauts on the Soyuz,” Bridenstine said. “And my last conversations with Dmitry Rogozin, I think we were both in strong agreement that was necessary for both nations as we move forward.”
Rogozin publicly congratulated NASA and SpaceX on the launch. That positive reaction stands in stark contrast to Rogozin’s comments from 2014, when he publicly decried US sanctions against the Russian space industry and made a dig at NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” Rogozin tweeted at the time. (SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joked about this comment after the launch this weekend, arguing that “the trampoline is working.”)