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Is NASA Running A Soyuz Seat Swap Scheme? Update.

By Keith Cowing
March 9, 2021
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Is NASA Running A Soyuz Seat Swap Scheme? Update.

NASA Signs Contract to Fly a NASA Astronaut on April Soyuz Rotation to the International Space Station
“To ensure continuous U.S. presence aboard the International Space Station, NASA has signed a contract with a U.S. commercial company Axiom Space of Houston to fly a NASA astronaut on an upcoming Soyuz rotation on Soyuz MS-18, scheduled to launch April 9. In exchange, NASA will provide a seat on a future U.S. commercial spacecraft, expected to launch in 2023, as part of a space station crew rotation mission. The “seat” on each flight includes transportation to and from the International Space Station and comprehensive mission support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue services.
Because the services are determined to be of comparable value to both parties, the contract contains no exchange of funds.
NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will launch aboard the Soyuz for a full expedition aboard the International Space Station. NASA will continue to work with Axiom to fly a non-NASA astronaut Axiom designates on a U.S. commercial spacecraft.”

Keith’s note: For starters Axiom Space does not have the ability to launch anything into space. They have to procure those services elsewhere. In this case Axiom clearly has some sort of deal with Roscosmos – one that Roscomos likes. Otherwise NASA would deal directly with Roscosmos as they have been for decades, right? So, assuming that the Russians are not stupid, is Axiom getting a special discount from Roscosmos as a marketing fee in exchange for selling a seat to NASA? Apparently so since they are certainly not doing this for free (they are in “business”, yes?). So, why can’t NASA get the same discount – without needing to use Axiom as a middleman?
Congress noticed the third party aspect of this: “Given the information and testimony listed above, it appears that NASA may be seeking to procure a Russian Soyuz seat from a third-party, on a noexchange-of-funds-basis, and that a formal agreement between NASA and Russia for seat exchanges may not be in place.”

NASA says that this deal will be balanced with a reciprocal seat on a U.S. commercial spacecraft (I am assuming that means SpaceX or Boeing) and “because the services are determined to be of comparable value to both parties, the contract contains no exchange of funds.” But there is not a “both parties” thing going on here. “Both” = two. NASA is getting a Roscosmos Soyuz flight via a third party i.e. Axiom. And the commercial flight via Boeing or SpaceX that NASA has already paid for means that a fourth party is involved. So “both” is the wrong word to use. And saying that no exchange of funds will happen between “both parties” does not mean that this flight is without cost. It just means that the money goes somewhere else.
Since a Roscosmos seat is being used for an American astronaut, one would assume that there would be a trade for an American seat for a Russian cosmonaut, right? That is how NASA and Roscosmos have traditionally done these things.
But wait – the release also says “NASA will continue to work with Axiom to fly a non-NASA astronaut Axiom designates on a U.S. commercial spacecraft.” So there is another seat – one that NASA has paid for on Boeing or SpaceX. So, Axiom is getting this commercial spacecraft seat from NASA. Are they paying for it – if so how much are they paying? If Axiom is not paying NASA for his commercial seat then how is it that NASA gets a Russian seat via Axiom and Axiom gets an American seat via NASA?
Is Axiom paying for the seat for their commercial astronaut? Or is Axiom buying the Russian seat, giving it to NASA and then NASA gives Axiom a seat on a commercial flight? I.e. is Axiom buying a NASA commercial seat via Roscosmos? But wait the release says that no one is exchanging funds.
And who is flying in the commercial seat on SpaceX/Boeing that NASA is proving to Axiom? Is Axiom going to resell that seat to Roscosmos? Or do they have space tourist? Is Axiom going to fly someone connected to their $140 million deal with NASA to build a commercial add-on to ISS? Is there any connection to their AX-1 mission to the ISS?
Or … is all of this third and fourth party stuff being done since NASA has not managed to negotiate a reciprocal MOU with Roscosmos – as Congress suspects?
Confused? I sure am. I’d ask NASA but they would just give me some sort of “its proprietary” non-answer – and Axiom simply ignores any request I make since I am a pest.
I certainly hope that the NASA OIG and GAO are looking at this. This sounds like a bait and switch scheme to me. Congress is confused as well and is seeking some answers too.
NASA Wants To Buy Russian While The White House Says Buy American (Update), earlier post
Congress Inquires About NASA/Russia Soyuz Deals, earlier post
Keith’s update: According to this English version of a release initially issued on 9 March in Russian by Roscomos

“Interagency Commission on cosmonaut selection and assigning crews of spacecraft and stations decided to exclude Sergey Korsakov from the ISS-65 long-term expedition prime crew and appointing NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei to the Soyuz MS-18 crew as Flight Engineer 2. This decision came based on the existing Roscosmos liabilities within the agreement with Axiom Space, Inc. to ensure professional NASA astronaut flight to the ISS as part of the Soyuz MS-18 crew.”

So … if you can wade through the mangled English they are saying that Roscosmos already had an agreement with Axiom Space to fly a NASA astronaut on a Soyuz to the ISS. Roscosmos has admitted this. Why haven’t NASA or Axiom Space said that the third party agreement was specifically for in place for the purpose of flying a NASA crew member? Or has the actual intent been lost in translation?
Oh yes – sources report that this Roscosmos/Axiom/NASA deal was sealed before the election – so the Biden team is stuck with implementing a Trump deal. Caveat emptor.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.