NASA has designated next year as the time when reliance on Russia to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station will finally end. However, one of the two companies now set to provide that service, Boeing, has said it won’t be able to launch a crewed mission from its Starliner spacecraft until 2018 at the earliest.
In a report that first appeared in GeekWire, Leanne Caret, Chief Executive Officer of Boeing’s Defense, Space, and Security Division, told investors: “We are working toward our first unmanned flight in 2017, followed by a crewed astronaut flight in 2018. .” The company has struggled to limit spacecraft mass and acoustic issues related to its launch vehicle, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
After intense competition with other providers, Boeing received $4.2 billion (~£2.9 billion) in 2014 to complete development of the Starliner capsule, and SpaceX received $2.6 billion to complete development of its Dragon capsule to complete. A SpaceX spokesperson told Ars Wednesday night that the company remains on track for manned missions in 2017.
NASA has depended on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to deliver its astronauts to the space station since the summer of 2011, when the space shuttle was retired. Space agency administrator Charles Bolden has criticized Congress for consistently underfunding its commercial crew program since the shuttle stopped flying. This has already delayed the launch of Boeing and SpaceX vehicles from 2015 to 2017.
The Russians have been reliable partners of NASA in the space station program, but they have steadily increased the price of a seat from less than $50 million a few years ago to more than $81.7 million in the years to come. As a hedge against potential delays, NASA signed a $490 million deal with Russia last year that would provide six additional seats in 2018 and early 2019.