Soyuz MS-16 launch
The April 9 launch of the Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft to the ISS. NASA has agreed to buy a seat on the next Soyuz mission in October 2020 for approximately $90 million. Credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

WASHINGTON — NASA will pay more than $90 million for an additional seat on a Soyuz spacecraft launching to the International Space Station this fall, an insurance policy in the event of any additional commercial crew delays.

NASA announced May 12 that it has completed negotiations with the Russian state space corporation Roscosmos for a seat on a Soyuz mission scheduled for launch in mid-October. The deal, NASA said in a brief statement, in intended to “ensure the agency keeps its commitment for safe operations via a continuous U.S. presence” on the ISS until commercial crew vehicles enter regular service.

The statement did not disclose the value of the deal, but NASA spokesman Josh Finch told SpaceNews the agreement is valued at $90.25 million. That includes the seat on the Soyuz spacecraft and various training, pre-launch and post-landing services. In addition, Finch said that NASA will compensate Roscosmos for bumping a Russian cosmonaut off that Soyuz mission by flying an unspecified amount of Russian cargo to the station on NASA commercial cargo spacecraft.

The decision to purchase an additional seat was not a surprise. NASA officials last fall said they were considering purchasing at least one additional seat to ensure the U.S. maintains a presence on the station after this fall. Chris Cassidy, the only NASA astronaut currently on the station, arrived there in April on the last Soyuz seat NASA had available, part of a two-seat deal the agency announced in early 2019. He is scheduled to return this fall.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said recently that NASA was near an agreement with Roscosmos for an additional seat. “We’re getting very close to finalizing that deal. I think it’s within days of being signed,” he said during a May 1 briefing about the upcoming SpaceX Demo-2 commercial crew test flight.

Delays in the commercial crew program, by both Boeing and SpaceX, have required NASA to purchase additional Soyuz seats at generally increasing prices. A November 2019 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General found that since 2017, when NASA targeted commercial crew flights to start, the agency spent about $1 billion on 12 additional Soyuz seats to ensure continued access to the station while both companies’ vehicles encountered development delays.

Bridenstine, at the briefing, said the agency hadn’t decided if it would need yet another Soyuz seat, for a launch in spring of 2021. “We want to see the level of risk that we need to accept” with commercial crew vehicles, he said. Current plans call for Demo-2 to spend up to four months at the station before returning. It will be closely followed by the first operational Crew Dragon mission, Crew-1, which will have four astronauts on board, three from NASA and one from the Japanese space agency JAXA.

“When Demo-2 comes home and we evaluate how it did, and we’re looking at Crew-1, we’re going to look at where we are and then make a determination if we might need a second Soyuz [seat], and then begin negotiations at that point,” he said.

Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, linked the decision for any additional Soyuz seats on the need for “repeatable” Crew Dragon missions, not just a successful Demo-2 test flight. “There’s been no significant discussions at this point in time” on buying a seat on the spring 2021 Soyuz mission, he said at the same briefing. “We’ll watch how things progress.”

NASA has not announced who will fly to the station on the Soyuz seat this October. One leading candidate is Stephen Bowen, who trained as Cassidy’s backup for the mission that launched in April.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...