Commercial Crew To Be Ready by 2017, But NASA Will Keep Flying on Soyuz Too

Commercial Crew To Be Ready by 2017, But NASA Will Keep Flying on Soyuz Too

NASA held a press conference today with its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) partners Boeing and SpaceX today to highlight progress on developing U.S. systems to take astronauts to space.  Both companies said they will be ready by the end of 2017, but CBS News adds that NASA still plans to use one seat on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for the duration of the space station program and for Russians to fly on the U.S. systems.

Launching American astronauts on American vehicles from American soil has been a NASA goal since the Obama Administration terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.   NASA currently pays Russia approximately $75 million per seat to launch U.S. astronauts (and those from its Canadian, European and Japanese ISS partners) on Soyuz spacecraft.  Russia is the only ISS partner capable of launching humans into space today.

Last September, NASA picked Boeing and SpaceX to continue to the final phase of developing new U.S. crew space transportation systems in a public private partnership where both the government and the company invest capital in the new systems.  NASA not only pays part of the development cost, but is a guaranteed market for a certain number of flights.

Boeing’s John Elbon and SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell briefly laid out their companies’ plans for meeting the 2017 goal today.  Elbon said that Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft will have its first uncrewed orbital test to the ISS in April 2017, with a crewed test in July 2017 and operational services beginning in December 2017.   Shotwell said SpaceX’s test flight of the crew version of its Dragon spacecraft would be late in 2016 and the first operational mission in early 2017.   Dragon is already used for uncrewed cargo missions to the ISS – one is docked there right now.

NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, suggested there is some flexibility about the timing, saying that NASA needs the services in the “late 2017, 2018 time frame.”   NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden also was careful in his wording about the date, saying that he is looking to the companies to deliver as promised by the end 2017 and “if we can make that date, I’m a happy camper.”  Lueders also said that Boeing would be the first to fly crews to the ISS, even though Elbon’s timeline was later than Shotwell’s.

NASA funding is critical to the CCtCAP program and Congress has taken several years to warm up to the idea, initially providing roughly half of the money the Administration requested.   NASA originally hoped commercial crew systems would be ready by 2015, but Bolden often cites congressional underfunding of the program as the reason the date slipped to 2017.

Today, however, Bolden was optimistic that Congress would provide the full amount that the President will request in his FY2016 budget proposal.  The President is expected to submit his FY2016 budget request to Congress on February 2.  Agencies like NASA are not allowed to discuss what is in the budget request until it is released.  For FY2015, the President requested $848 million and Congress appropriated $805 million, the closest Congress has come to appropriating what the Administration wanted for this program.

Lueders said that by the end of the program, NASA will have spent about $5 billion on development and the average cost per seat will be $58 million.  She said that figure is not traceable back to the contracts, however.  It is a “derived” value based on the mission costs over five years for crew and cargo (CST-100 and Dragon can carry both).   She said it is not NASA’s intent to have an exact price, but only to indicate that U.S. industry has “stepped up to provide cost effective solutions to flying crews” to ISS.

Bolden emphasized today his desire to end U.S. dependence on Russia, saying he hopes to never have to write a check to Russia’s Roscosmos after 2017.  That does not mean, however, that American astronauts no longer will fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.    CBS News space correspondent Bill Harwood reported today on a January 15 interview with ISS Program Manager Mike Suffredini who said that NASA plans to use one seat on Soyuz for the duration of the ISS program and Russians would fly on the U.S. commercial vehicles.  “We’re assuming two Russian seats a year and we’re assuming two Russians will fly in our seats per year … And it’ll just be a quid pro quo, we won’t ask for compensation,” Suffredini told Harwood.

Bolden also said at the press conference today that he thinks the Russians will be “perfectly happy” with the advent of the U.S. commercial systems because they provide redundancy in crew access to the ISS and the “intent is to fly mixed crews.”

Bolden’s theme throughout the press conference was that NASA needs to focus on space exploration, specifically going to Mars, and that will require participation of international and commercial partners.   Turning transportation to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the commercial sector frees NASA to focus on deep space exploration.  After the ISS has fulfilled its purpose around 2024, it will be taken apart and deorbited, he said, and future LEO infrastructure will be provided by commercial companies:  the “world of LEO belongs to industry, it doesn’t belong to the government, it doesn’t belong to NASA at all.”

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