NEW YORK — NASA has struck a new $753 million deal with Russia for 12 round trips to the international space station, but will now have to pay more per seat — almost $63 million, the U.S. space agency announced March 14.
The new deal will allow NASA to fly a dozen astronauts from the U.S. or its partner agencies on Russia’s venerable Soyuz spacecraft between 2014 and 2015 at a cost of about $62.7 million per seat. That’s an increase from the $55.8 million per seat NASA paid under a deal for six round trips to the station in 2013 and 2014.
“It’s an 8.5 percent annual increase,” said NASA spokesman Josh Bluck, referring to the overall increase. “The increase covers just the general inflation rate in Russia for the cost of processing and preparation.”
Russia’s Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, has been ferrying cosmonauts and astronauts on round trips to the space station for more than a decade. The $100 billion space station has been under construction by five space agencies, representing 15 countries, since 1998 and is nearly complete.
The first crew of the space station, called Expedition 1, arrived in November 2001. Three members of the station’s latest crew, Expedition 26, returned to Earth March 16 on a Soyuz capsule.
The new deal comes during a major transition year for NASA. The space agency is retiring its space shuttle fleet after 30 years of spaceflight.
Shuttle Discovery, for example, just flew its last flight. The other two shuttles in service — Endeavour and Atlantis — are expected to launch their final missions in April and June, respectively.
Once the shuttles are retired, NASA plans to rely on commercially developed spacecraft operated by private companies to ferry astronauts and cargo to the space station. The first flights for those are anticipated around 2015 or 2016, four or more years after the last shuttle mission flies.
“We are still anticipating having the availability of domestic commercial crew transportation by the middle of the decade,” Bluck said.
Private spaceship plan
NASA already has contracts with two private companies to build and launch unmanned spaceships to the space station to deliver supplies and equipment.
One company is Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (), which will provide 12 delivery flights using its Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rockets under a $1.6 billion contract. Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. will provide eight delivery flights using its Taurus 2 rockets and Cygnus spacecraft.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are also two of at least eight commercial space companies vying for NASA funding for its Commercial Crew Development Program aimed at spurring development of private spacecraft capable of launching astronauts into space.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charlessaid commercial space companies form a vital part of NASA’s exploration plan, since they will give the United States independent access to space with American spacecraft.
“The president’s 2012 budget request boosts funding for our partnership with the commercial space industry and prioritizes our efforts to ensure that American astronauts and the cargo they need are transported by American companies rather than continuing to outsource this work to foreign governments,” Bolden said. “This new approach in getting our crews and cargo into orbit will create good jobs and expand opportunities for our American economy. If we are to win the future and out build our competitors, it’s essential that we make this program a success.”
Bluck said that the new deal for seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft should provide a one-year overlap between astronaut flights on Soyuz craft and the anticipated commercial vehicle trips.
“We need to ensure that we have a smooth transition,” Bluck said.
The station-bound Soyuz flights, meanwhile, will carry small amounts of cargo to and from the station for NASA and assist with the disposal of trash. Under the contract modification, NASA is entitled to send up as much as 50 kilograms of cargo per reserved seat and bring back 17 kilograms of cargo back to Earth on the return trip. In addition, NASA is entitled to 30 kilograms of trash disposal per reserved seat.
The contract modification does not cover any NASA-funded flights of Russia’s unmanned Progress re-supply ships, which flew to the space station five times in 2010, delivering more than 12,500 kilograms of cargo.
“NASA doesn’t plan to purchase Progress cargo services beyond the existing services contracted through 2011,” Buck said in a March 17 e-mail. “The agency awarded two Commercial Resupply Services contracts: one to Orbital Sciences Corp., and one to Space Exploration Technologies.”