NASA and Roscosmos have sought for years to renew integrated crewed flights as part of longstanding civil alliance.

The United States and Russian space agencies have signed a long-sought agreement to integrate flights to the International Space Station (ISS), allowing Russian cosmonauts to fly on US-made spacecraft in exchange for American astronauts being able to ride on Russia’s Soyuz.

In a statement on Friday, Roscosmos said the deal with NASA “is in the interests of Russia and the US and will promote the development of cooperation within the framework of the ISS program”.

It also will facilitate the “exploration of outer space for peaceful purposes”, the Russian space agency said.

NASA and Roscosmos, the two-decade-old space station’s core partners, have sought for years to renew routine integrated crewed flights as part of their longstanding civil alliance, now one of the last links of cooperation between the US and Russia as tensions flare over the war in Ukraine.

A view from NASA spacewalker Thomas Marshburn’s camera, looking toward the International Space Station below him, on December 2, 2021. (CNN)

The first integrated flights under the new agreement will come in September, NASA said, with US astronaut Frank Rubio launching to the space station from the Moscow-leased Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan alongside two cosmonauts, Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitry Petelin.

In exchange, cosmonaut Anna Kikina will join two US astronauts and a Japanese astronaut on a SpaceX Crew Dragon flight to the orbital laboratory, launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The two agencies had previously shared astronaut seats on the US Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

After the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, the US relied on Russia’s Soyuz for sending American astronauts to the space station until 2020, when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule revived NASA’s human spaceflight capability and began routine ISS flights from Florida.

Kikina, an engineer and the only woman in Russia’s active cosmonaut corps, is set to be the first Russian to fly SpaceX‘s Crew Dragon capsule. She has been training for the mission at NASA’s astronaut headquarters in Houston while the agreement was under negotiation.

The US space agency has said having at least one Russian and one American on board the space station is crucial to keeping the laboratory running.

“Flying integrated crews ensures there are appropriately trained crew members on board the station for essential maintenance and spacewalks,” NASA said in a statement on Friday.

Shortly before the agreement was announced, President Vladimir Putin replaced the head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, with Yuri Borisov, a former deputy prime minister and deputy defence minister.

SOURCE: REUTERS