With Regret, NASA Readies Checkbook for Backup Soyuz Seats

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WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks after the head of NASA said he hoped commercial crew vehicles would allow NASA to stop paying for Soyuz flights to and from the International Space Station after 2017, the agency revealed plans to procure seats on Soyuz missions in 2018 as a hedge against potential delays.

“I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017.”

In a procurement synopsis posted Feb. 6, NASA announced its intent to purchase crew flight and rescue services from the Russian space agency Roscosmos. NASA plans to buy six seats on Soyuz missions to the ISS in 2018, with return of crews extending into early 2019.

NASA said in the synopsis that a three-year lead time to procure Soyuz flights from Russia requires NASA to decide now to buy seats in 2018, even though the agency’s current plans call for commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX to be ready to take over transportation of NASA astronauts, as well as those from Canada, Europe, and Japan, by the end of 2017.

“Until the U.S. commercial vehicles are successfully demonstrated and meet the acceptance criteria established by NASA, continued access to Russian crew launch, return, and rescue services is essential for planned ISS operations and utilization by all ISS partners,” the agency said in the synopsis.

The procurement synopsis did not disclose the expected cost to NASA for the six seats in 2018. NASA spokeswoman Rachel Kraft said Feb. 11 that a prior contract extension with Roscosmos for six seats in 2017 cost NASA $458 million, or $76.3 million per seat.

At a Jan. 26 press conference at the Johnson Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden hailed the development of commercial crew vehicles for allowing NASA to end its reliance on Russia for transporting ISS crews. “I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017,” he said.

Bolden said he was hopeful Boeing and SpaceX would adhere to current schedules that have the companies ready to being commercial missions to the ISS by late 2017. “If we can make that date, I’m a happy camper,” he said.

In a statement provided to SpaceNews Feb. 10, the agency said the Soyuz procurement was a backup should the companies experience delays. “As NASA administrator Charles Bolden has made very clear, we don’t want to ever write another check to the Russian space agency,” the agency said. “To ensure crew safety and guard against a disruption in transportation services, we need a contingency plan.”

In a source selection statement NASA released in January about the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts it awarded, reviewers identified schedule concerns in the proposals submitted by Boeing and SpaceX, as well as a third bidder, Sierra Nevada Corp. The statement noted a “compressed flight test schedule” as a weakness in Boeing’s proposal and a “compressed certification schedule” as a weakness in SpaceX’s bid.

NASA also warned in the rollout of its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal that a shortfall in funding could also delay commercial crew vehicle development. NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for the program in 2016, an increase of more than 50 percent from the $805 million NASA received for the program in 2015.

NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski said Feb. 2 that the 2016 request for commercial crew was based on the milestones in its contracts with the two companies. “If Congress does not fund the $1.244 billion of milestones that are planned for SpaceX and Boeing, we cannot fund them, and therefore we will have to renegotiate those contracts,” he said. “As a result, we will not be able to certify those services by the end of 2017.”

The agency has provided few details about what it would do with the Soyuz seats should either or both companies stay on schedule and be ready to transport astronauts to the ISS by the end of 2017. NASA declined to answer questions on specific uses for the Soyuz in that event, including whether some of those seats could be deferred to later years. According to the synopsis, should commercial crew vehicles be in service in 2018, “The Soyuz vehicles procured under this action may then be utilized as a backup transportation option to ensure proper launch cadence or to augment future ISS operations and research.”