The Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, released photos on Monday showing the much-anticipated Nauka space station module enclosed in its payload fairing. This will be Russia’s first significant addition to the International Space Station in more than a decade, and it will provide the Russians with their first module dedicated primarily to research. “Nauka” means science in Russian.
This is a sizable module, including crew quarters, an airlock for scientific experiments, and much more. With a mass of about 24 metric tons, it is about 20 percent larger than the biggest Russian segment of the station, the Zvezda service module.
The timing for this launch, scheduled for as early as July 15 on a Proton rocket, is notable. For one, the multi-purpose Nauka module is more than a dozen years late due to a lack of budget for the project on top of technical issues. At times, it seemed like the module was never actually going to launch.
Additionally, Russia is launching its largest module at a time when its future participation in the International Space Station program is uncertain. Russian officials have said the existing hardware on orbit, much of which is more than two decades old, is aging beyond repair. The Russians have said they may pull out of the program in 2025 and build a brand-new station.
So why launch a new module just a few years before exiting the station? One possibility is that the Russians are simply posturing. Some NASA officials have speculated privately that this may be an angle to obtain new funds from the United States. With the success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle and nearing availability of Boeing’s Starliner, NASA is no longer annually sending hundreds of millions of dollars to Roscosmos to purchase Soyuz seats for access to the station. This was an important source of funding for Russia’s space program.
However, NASA would like to keep the station flying for another decade, and for this it needs the Russians. The first elements of the International Space Station were launched in 1998, and it was designed such that the US and Russian segments were dependent upon one another for attitude control, power, and other critical resources. The NASA officials suspect Russia may seek “maintenance” funding from the United States in return for keeping its part of the space station going.
Nauka’s launch is an important symbolic win for Russia’s space program, in that it is increasingly rare for Roscosmos to develop and fly new hardware. Mostly, the program maintains and launches decades-old spacecraft such as the Soyuz vehicle and the Proton rocket.
After being encapsulated in its payload fairing, Nauka will now move to a “filling station” at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where it will be fueled and pressurized. After that, it will be mated to its Proton rocket for a launch that may occur as soon as July 15.
Listing image by Roscosmos