NASA’s commercial program holds a lot of promise: Developing private vehicles to take people to low-Earth orbit should ultimately reduce spaceflight costs and broaden access to space. But as is often the case with new spacecraft development, both Boeing and SpaceX have faced technical issues with their capsules.
Publicly, NASA has maintained hope that by late 2017 or early 2018 at least one private vehicle, either Boeing’s Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, would be capable of performing operational missions. But that no longer seems certain or even likely. Meanwhile, NASA still has the International Space Station to maintain and must get its astronauts there the only way it can. In 2015, anticipating delays with the commercial crew program, NASA purchased transport on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft until 2018. But that may not be long enough, the agency has decided.
Seats for 2019
Last September, Ars reported, citing anonymous sources, that NASA had begun considering buying additional seats in 2019 as a hedge against further delays with the commercial crew program. Both NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and the agency’s chief of manned spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, subsequently denied this report.
Despite these dismissive comments, a new request filed Tuesday by NASA reveals that the agency does indeed want to buy Soyuz seats for 2019 (NASA will negotiate with Boeing for these additional seats, which Boeing received from Russia’s Energia as compensation for the settlement of a lawsuit involving the Sea Launch joint venture). The request seeks an option to purchase three additional Soyuz seats in 2019 “as a primary or backup transport option to ensure a proper launch cadence with no gaps in crew transport.”
The request comes just three days before Bolden, a champion of the commercial crew program who has debated funding with Congress, leaves office. It seems likely that the notice is timed to allow time for Russia to build additional Soyuz launch capability for 2019, while also allowing the current NASA leadership to sidestep this politically sensitive issue before launching on Jan. 20. , when Donald Trump is inaugurated, leaves office.
No doubt Congress will not be favorably inclined to fund funding requests for additional Russian seats, especially as the price continues to rise. Since the decision to decommission the space shuttle in 2009, the Russian price for a seat has skyrocketed from about $30 million for an orbital trip to $81.9 million for each of the six seats that NASA provides for 2018 bought. It seems likely that the price for all seats would increase significantly in 2019, especially since NASA would provide less than three years of lead time as is typical for such orders.
More seats in 2017 and 2018
The new NASA request also targets two additional seats in 2017 and 2018. This is possible because Russia will scale back its presence on the space station from three crew members every six months to two over the next few years as it tries to reduce spending. By reducing crew numbers, Russia will have to fly fewer Progress freighters, which deliver food and supplies to the Russian side of the station.
This Russian decision will make room for one crew member in fall 2017 and spring 2018, and NASA would also like to buy those two trips to space to increase the crew’s time for scientific research aboard the station. “The purchase of these services in 2017 and 2018 will increase the U.S. crew of the ISS from three to four crew members to maximize the scientific use of the ISS,” the NASA filing states. “Maximizing the scientific use of the ISS is a program priority.”
The extra seats for NASA and U.S. partners wouldn’t take effect until September this year, meaning Fyodor Yurcikhin and Jack Fischer will still be flying as a crew of two in March.