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NASA really doesn’t want to rely on Russia to take astronauts to space anymore

The space agency's administrator, Charles Bolden, let out his feelings in an open letter to Congress


NASA administrator Charles Bolden is very disappointed in Congress — and he's letting everyone know it. Today in Wired, Bolden published an open letter to the law-making body titled, "Congress, Don't Make Us Hitch Rides With Russia. Love, NASA." In the letter, he criticizes Congress for not giving NASA the funding it needs for its Commercial Crew Program — the initiative to send US astronauts back into space on American rockets. Without the money, Bolden says NASA will be forced to rely on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station — which he argues is both costly and embarrassing.

NASA's Commercial Crew Program is designed to stimulate the US private sector. Through the program, NASA awarded contracts to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to develop spacecraft that could ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. The first launches of these vehicles are scheduled for late 2017.

"It’s as if we keep ordering expensive takeout because we haven’t yet set up our own kitchen."

Yet Bolden says those launches are in jeopardy of being delayed. Since the inception of Commercial Crew, Congress has underfunded the program by $1 billion. This has stifled development of the SpaceX and Boeing vehicles. "Had Congress adequately funded President Obama’s Commercial Crew proposal, we could have been making final preparations this year to once again launch American astronauts to space from American soil aboard American spacecraft," Bolden writes.

Instead, NASA must turn to Russia for its space transportation needs. Since the cancellation of the Shuttle program in 2011, NASA astronauts have been riding to space aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket; it's not a cheap trip. It costs around $81 million to send just one astronaut on the Soyuz. Bolden says it will only cost $58 million per seat to send astronauts on the Commercial Crew vehicles. "It’s as if we keep ordering expensive takeout because we haven’t yet set up our own kitchen — only, in this case, the takeout meals are costing us hundreds of millions of dollars," he writes.

NASA has given around $1 billion to Russia for rides on the Soyuz over the past four years. The space agency recently purchased even more Soyuz trips through 2018, due to uncertainty over the future of the Commercial Crew Program. Bolden urges Congress to stop this Russian dependency and give NASA the funding it needs. "We are the country that kissed the Moon. We’re the country that’s roving Mars. We’re the country that continues to reach new horizons, including most recently, Pluto. We ought be able to get our own astronauts to space."

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