NASA to Pay $70 Million a Seat to Fly Astronauts on Soyuz

On July 8, 2011, Americans witnessed the launch of STS-135, the 135th and final mission of the Space Shuttle Program. Since the completion of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has relied upon the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, for the launch and safe return of astronauts to and from the International Space Station aboard its Soyuz spacecraft. In spite of ISS operations being a collaborative effort between multiple space agencies around the world, it’s ironic that NASA — who is responsible for a large chunk of the funding and administration for the space station — has to rely upon an expensive Soyuz “taxi ride” in order to send American astronauts into space.

Empty status board in the Vehicle Assembly Building

Empty status board in the Vehicle Assembly Building

Hoping that an American-based commercial alternative would be available by 2015 under the Commercial Crew Program, NASA had an original contract with Roscosmos at roughly $62.7 million per seat aboard a Soyuz spacecraft. However, because of the failure on Congress’ part to fully fund the CCP at optimum levels, that goal has been made impossible. Still requiring a means to transport Americans to and from the ISS, on April 30, NASA was forced to extend that contract until 2017.

This extension also comes at a price. The price of one Soyuz seat now requires NASA to pay Roscosmos approximately $8 million more, at $70.7 million per seat. This deal effectively bought NASA six seats to the ISS until 2016, with return and rescue guarantees on those voyages until 2017.

The Obama administration in his FY2012 and FY2013 budget proposals has requested $850 million and $830 million, respectively. What Congress ultimately approved, however, was far less — $406 million and $489 million, respectively

In a statement on his blog, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden voiced his concerns:

“Because the funding for the President’s plan has been significantly reduced, we now won’t be able to support American launches until 2017. Even this delayed availability will be in question if Congress does not fully support the President’s fiscal year 2014 request for our Commercial Crew Program, forcing us once again to extend our contract with the Russians. Further delays in our Commercial Crew Program and its impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable. That’s why we need the full $821 million the President has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track to meet our 2017 deadline and bring these launches back to the United States.”

If that budgetary request is not granted, it is very likely that NASA — still requiring a means to get astronauts to the ISS — would be forced to extend the contract with Roscosmos once again, beyond 2017, and be obligated to pay even more for a seat aboard a Soyuz.

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft approaching the ISS

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft approaching the ISS

To date, there has been great progress with commercial space agencies. SpaceX, for example, which was contracted by NASA to carry out 12 missions to the ISS, has already completed two. However, the lower-than-expected requested funding for the CCP is the main reason why the extension with Roscosmos was required in the first place.

Because we require a three-year lead time from Roscosmos to construct Soyuz spacecraft, NASA has to plan accordingly. If the CCP had been funded at the original requested level — meaning that a commercial space agency would be ready to transport Americans into space — NASA likely would have been ready to end reliance on Soyuz trips in 2015. Instead, underfunded budgets have forced delays in the readiness of the CCP.

Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy space station program manager, had this to say to a NASA advisory committee:

“All of our top risks are budgetary now. We’re very worried, from a budget standpoint, about commercial crew and Soyuz. Today, there is no budget for commercial crew and Soyuz. … We don’t want to be in a situation where we can no longer have U.S. crew members on-board ISS because we didn’t buy any more Soyuz and commercial crew isn’t ready.”

Barring any further contract extensions required with Roscosmos, NASA should be able to contract a large majority of its missions to the ISS via American-based commercial space companies, which would enable increased funding to be put towards missions with a scope outside of low-Earth orbit.

Tell Congress that you support fully funding the Commercial Crew Program and that you want to end NASA’s dependence on expensive Soyuz trips: