Wed. Mar 22nd, 2023
Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sit in a mock-up of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft.  Boeing's Chris Ferguson describes the interior of the spacecraft.
Enlarge / Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sit in a mock-up of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. Boeing’s Chris Ferguson describes the interior of the spacecraft.


Senior managers of NASA’s International Space Station program have begun internal discussions about the possibility of purchasing additional Soyuz seats for US astronauts in 2019, two sources have told Ars. While a final decision will likely be made after the presidential election, the issue is “in the minds of the people” at the Johnson Space Center as confidence in operational commercial crew flights from US soil is shaky by or before 2019.

Ars understands that NASA has not formally discussed the topic with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency that builds the Soyuz spacecraft and rockets and manages their launches from Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome. Negotiations should begin fairly soon, however, as the Russians typically need up to three years of lead time to produce additional launchers.

Uncertainty in production timelines for Boeing and SpaceX, both of which are developing capsules to transport humans to the space station, has led to unforeseen discussions about additional seats at the Houston space center. Publicly, NASA has maintained hope that at least one private vehicle would be capable of operational missions in late 2017 or early 2018. However, Boeing has already pushed back its schedule to early 2018. SpaceX has maintained the possibility of a later launch date in 2017, but with the recent accident, delays seem inevitable. Privately, NASA planners are concerned about additional delays that could push those schedules further into 2019.

On Thursday, Johnson Space Center director Ellen Ochoa expressed optimism but no certainty about the private company’s timelines. “We think it’s entirely possible to have it in 2018, but you’re always just progressing from month to month,” the former astronaut told Ars. When asked about the SpaceX accident, she added: “It’s really hard to say what that impact will be. I would just like to say that both companies are extremely committed. They work well with us.”

A politically painful decision

A decision to purchase seats will almost certainly not be made until December or later, as such a move would be politically painful for the space agency. While it’s true that Congress and the President agreed to retire the space shuttle after its last flight in 2011, no one in Washington DC was happy with the gap in the capabilities of US human spaceflight after the shuttle’s demise.

During the first half of this decade, Congress exacerbated this gap by underfunding the commercial crew program, in which NASA contracted several companies for crew-carrying spacecraft that were significantly less expensive than NASA could have developed. The lower than requested funding, totaling more than $1 billion over several years, led to delays in first flights from 2015 to 2017.

But since NASA opted for just Boeing and SpaceX in September 2014, Congress has increased its funding level to better align with NASA’s requests. The agency’s own inspector general, Paul Martin, recently concluded that post-2017 scheduling delays were due to technical issues with the spacecraft’s design rather than funding issues.

Hmm, we wonder why the price went up so much in 2010 and 2011.

Hmm, we wonder why the price went up so much in 2010 and 2011.

NASA Inspector General

With that in mind, Congress won’t be positively inclined to fund funding requests for additional Russian seats, especially as the price continues to climb. Since the decision to decommission the space shuttle in 2009, the Russian price for a seat has skyrocketed from about $30 million for a trip to orbit to $81.9 million for each of the six seats NASA has in place. 2018 bought. insider to joke: “The Russians are the best capitalists of them all.”) It seems likely that the price for seats will increase significantly in 2019, especially since NASA would offer less than the three-year lead time that is usual for such orders.

Trading Seats

Another wrinkle facing NASA is how to handle transactions for seats on commercial crew spacecraft after they begin flying. That’s because when Boeing’s Starliner capsules and SpaceX’s Dragon capsules launch from Florida, they will have a Russian astronaut on board in addition to NASA and any international partner astronauts. This is to ensure that every crew going to the station has a representation from the two main partners, the United States and Russia.

As it works now, there’s an “A Line” Soyuz and, three months later, a “B Line” spacecraft, totaling four launches per year. The A Line vehicle carries two Russians and one American, and the B Line vehicle typically carries one NASA astronaut, one Russian, and one international partner. When the commercial crew vehicles start flying, there will likely be a Soyuz launch, then a commercial vehicle, then a Soyuz, and so on. Essentially, a Starliner or Dragon will now replace the B-line Soyuz in the scheme.

The wrinkle is that it hasn’t been determined how NASA and Roscosmos will swap their seats. For example, a source familiar with the matter said it was unlikely that Russia would pay a similar amount for a seat in a US commercial vehicle that NASA pays for Soyuz transport. (They might argue, for instance, that the US vehicle is still in experimental mode.) In any case, this could provide an additional point of negotiation — and Congressional consternation — if NASA decides it needs to buy additional seats in 2019.

By akfire1

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