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NASA delays astronaut flights with SpaceX and other companies, extends Russia contract

NASA delays astronaut flights with SpaceX and other companies, extends Russia contract

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NASA has not had the ability to send astronauts to the International Space Station since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, and that's not going to change anytime soon. A plan to replace the shuttle by paying for rides on commercial spacecraft from SpaceX, Boeing or several other private companies has been delayed from its original 2015 anticipated start date due to budget cuts, NASA announced today. Instead, NASA has extended a contract with the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), paying another $424 million to allow US astronauts to fly aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft through 2016, and to return them or provide rescue services through 2017. That comes out to about $70 million per seat, while SpaceX estimates it will be able to fly astronauts at a cost of $20 million per seat.

"Unacceptable that we don't currently have an American capability."

Although this type of contract extension with Russia is far from new (NASA has signed extensions for Russian space transportation services several times since the original contract was inked in 2009), the move is a blow to NASA and its commercial crew partners. "While our Russian counterparts have been good partners, it is unacceptable that we don't currently have an American capability to launch our own astronauts," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement released on NASA's website today. "Because the funding for the President's plan has been significantly reduced, we now won’t be able to support American launches until 2017." Bolden called upon Congress to approve President Obama's budget request of $821 million for NASA's commercial crew program or risk further delays in getting NASA astronauts off the ground on American-made spacecraft. That's a $300 million increase from funding approved in fiscal year 2013, but closer to the $850 million NASA originally asked for.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said that the average cost-per-seat that NASA was paying to fly US astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft was $63 million, which was the previous value. That has gone up to $70 million with the contract extension.