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NASA coughs up $490 million for six more seats on Russia’s Soyuz rocket

The space agency says it's Congress' fault

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NASA/Getty Images

NASA is extending its contract with Russia by purchasing six additional seats on the Soyuz rocket for 2018, at a price of $490 million, or $81.6 million per seat. This is Congress’ fault, according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden — legislators made it a necessity by cutting the budget of NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

Since 2011 NASA has relied on the Russian Soyuz rocket for getting US astronauts into space. The Commercial Crew Program is an attempt to get American astronauts back into space on American rockets. Through the Commercial Crew contracts, NASA is funding two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to develop and operate crew transportation vehicles to ferry US astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The first crewed launches of these vehicles are currently slated for 2017, but in a letter to Congress, Bolden says that Congress has drastically underfunded the program and that the first flights may be delayed until 2018.

"I urge Congress to provide the funds requested for our Commercial Crew Program this year."

"The fastest path to bringing these new systems online, launching from America, and ending our sole reliance on Russia is fully funding NASA's Commercial Crew Program in FY 2016," Bolden writes. President Obama's budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year included $1.24 billion for Commercial Crew, but a bill passed by the House in June only provides $1 billion for the program. Another bill being considered by the Senate would cut funding even further — to just $900 million.

Bolden says it's getting harder for the companies to meet the necessary milestones established by the Commercial Crew contracts as funds leak from the program. NASA hasn't officially said whether or not the first commercial flights will be pushed back, but Bolden says the agency must prepare for that scenario. Seats on the Soyuz must be "booked" three years in advance, so the space agency made the purchase in case the SpaceX and Boeing vehicles won't be ready in time.

Bolden hopes it doesn't come to that, however, and urges Congress to help end NASA’s reliance on Russia. "It is my sincere hope that we all agree that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on others to launch humans into space," Bolden writes in the letter. "I urge Congress to provide the funds requested for our Commercial Crew Program this year, so we can prevent this situation in the future."