NASA has agreed to fly at least two more astronauts on upcoming Russian Soyuz missions to the International Space Station, the space agency announced in a press release. The news comes in the wake of delays to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative where two American companies — SpaceX and Boeing — are being paid to create spacecraft that can ferry astronauts to the ISS. Those flights were originally supposed to happen this year, but are now estimated to take place no earlier than 2019.
The additional seats are being worked into an existing contract with Boeing, which helps operate the ISS. The agreement extension covers two seats on Soyuz flights this year and next year, and includes options for seats on three Soyuz flights in 2019. Boeing acquired theses seats from Russian aerospace company RSC Energia, and has been trying to sell them to NASA since January. The total cost of all five seats is $373.5 million, or $74.7 million per seat — a touch short of the $81.7 million NASA has been paying Roscosmos.
The US hasn’t had the capability to send its own astronauts to space (or bring them back) since the Space Shuttle program was discontinued in 2011. Private US spaceflight companies were growing at a rapid pace then, so NASA decided to fund these companies so they could become a sort of space taxi service for American astronauts. The Commercial Crew Program was intended to give NASA a cheaper alternative to Russia, but the program has been hampered by delays and cost issues. The space agency is also planning to fly astronauts on its own Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS) maybe as early as 2019, but that program has also been delayed.
In 2015, NASA spent $490 million on six more Soyuz seats as a hedge against the possibility that the SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft wouldn’t be ready in time. Seats on the Soyuz are typically sorted out three years in advance when dealing directly with Roscosmos. (NASA was able to book the two new seats with less time since they had already been accounted for when they were bought by RSC Energia.)
It was a prescient move because Boeing delayed — twice — the first crewed flight of its spacecraft, Starliner, in 2016. And SpaceX followed suit at the end of the year, saying in December that the human-rated version of its Dragon spacecraft wouldn’t fly with a crew until at least 2018.
Two weeks ago, the Government Accountability Office — a federal agency that performs audits for Congress — released a report that estimated SpaceX and Boeing won’t be ready to fly humans to space until 2019. The GAO cited concerns about a particular defect in SpaceX’s engine turbines, as well as Boeing’s reliance on Russian rocket engines as some of the reasons.
NASA addressed the GAO report implicitly in the press release about the contract extension with Russia. “NASA’s Commercial crew transportation providers Boeing and SpaceX have made significant progress toward returning crew launches to the US, but external review groups have recommended an option to protect for delays or problems in certification,” the agency wrote.
The contract extension with Russia was actually announced a week ago, and it was first spotted by SpaceNews, which points out the curious nature of how NASA quietly published the news. The agency is currently in a transitional phase as it waits for President Donald Trump to name a new NASA administrator.
Robert Lightfoot, who is serving as acting administrator, recently sent a memo to NASA employees explaining his interest in accelerating NASA’s plans for human spaceflight. He asked for NASA and Lockheed Martin, which makes Orion and SLS, to evaluate whether it would be possible to put a crew on the first flight of that spaceship / rocket combination in 2018 instead of 2021. It’s a bold idea for a space agency that is known for caution, but it aligns with what we know the Trump administration wants out of NASA: an increased emphasis on human spaceflight and space exploration in general.
“President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will ‘unlock the mysteries of space,’” Lightfoot wrote. “The SLS and Orion missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world preeminence in exploring the cosmos.”