NASA Mulls Soyuz Needs As Commercial Crew Schedule Remains Fluid

NASA Mulls Soyuz Needs As Commercial Crew Schedule Remains Fluid

NASA is weighing whether it needs to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft as the schedule for the commercial crew program remains uncertain.  NASA’s space station program manager said today the agency is looking at options as it tries to ensure that no undue schedule pressure is exerted on the commercial crew contractors, Boeing and SpaceX.  Kirk Shireman agreed on the need to get those systems flying, but safely.  Meanwhile, a congressional waiver that allows NASA to pay Russia for Soyuz services expires at the end of 2020.

Kirk Shireman, ISS Program Manager, NASA, speaking at briefing on upcoming spacewalks October 4, 2019. Screengrab

Kirk Shireman, International Space Station (ISS) Program Manager, declined to talk specifics about the commercial crew schedule during a briefing today about an upcoming series of 10 spacewalks.  Five are to replace batteries on the outside of ISS and begin on Sunday.  The second set are to repair the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a scientific instrument attached to the exterior of ISS.

Responding to questions from reporters, Shireman demurred when asked about when Boeing and SpaceX will begin launching astronauts to the ISS.  “We let the companies announce their dates,” he said, noting that he hears many dates and did not know off the top of his head the current set.

He did say that over the next month both companies will conduct their abort tests, a required step before they launch the CST-100 Starliner (Boeing) and Crew Dragon (SpaceX) with astronauts onboard.

The companies also are required to launch uncrewed flight tests, and then crewed flight tests.  SpaceX completed its uncrewed test, Demo-1, in March, but suffered a setback in April when it was getting ready for the in-flight abort test. An explosion during a ground test destroyed the Crew Dragon spacecraft that had just returned from ISS and was to be used for the abort test.  The cause was traced to a check valve and the company has made a number of changes to the spacecraft since then.

Shireman said that after both companies conduct their abort tests, Boeing will launch its uncrewed test flight (OFT-1), and then SpaceX will do its crewed flight test, Demo-2.  The dates for those flights are not fixed yet.  Shireman said the companies are “working as hard as they can,” but he is determined to give them flexibility and not exert schedule pressure.

“We have dates about when Boeing and SpaceX are going to be ready to fly and … we’re working with those companies and [NASA’s] Commercial Crew Program to not only understand where they are, but to provide the maximum flexibility for those guys to take as much time as they really need.  … We need them to fly, but more importantly we need them to fly safely. — Kirk Shireman

That viewpoint seems somewhat at odds with a tweet from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine last week that chided SpaceX as its founder and CEO, Elon Musk, was about to give an update on the company’s Starship program.  That system is being designed to take crews to the Moon and Mars and generated a lot of enthusiasm among spaceflight aficionados. Bridenstine sounded peeved that SpaceX was being heralded for its future plans when it is not delivering on commercial crew.

In an interview with CNN after the Starship briefing, Musk sardonically asked if Bridenstine was complaining about commercial crew or NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS), also years late.  Earlier he had said SpaceX’s primary focus is Crew Dragon and the Falcon rocket, with only about 5 percent of its resources going to Starship.

By yesterday, the relationship was mending. Bridenstine tweeted that he had spoken with Musk and will visit the company’s Hawthorne, CA headquarters on Thursday.

Until SpaceX and/or Boeing are ready to fly their commercial crew systems, NASA will remain dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS. NASA has not been able to launch anyone into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  NASA contracts with Russia for crew transportation services.  The current price is about $83 million per seat.

The last of those contracted flights will launch in March 2020, returning in October.  Shireman said NASA has no agreement with Russia to pay for any more and is assessing options.

One option is to use the Boeing and SpaceX test flights as operational flights and part of the regular ISS crew rotation schedule. NASA and Boeing already have such an agreement.  Asked why there is no similar deal with SpaceX, Shireman explained that at the time the Boeing arrangement was made, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon technically could not be used for an extended mission.  Much has changed since then, he added, and extending the SpaceX crew test flight is now part of the discussion.

Another option is barter.  Bill Gerstenmaier, until recently the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, told a congressional committee in 2018 that once the U.S. systems are operating,  NASA will continue to fly astronauts on Soyuz and Russia will fly cosmonauts on the U.S. systems to ensure they are cross-trained. Those flights will take place with no exchange of funds, he said.  Notionally if NASA needs another Soyuz seat before commercial crew is ready, it could trade it for an additional Russian seat on a U.S. vehicle.

If all else fails and NASA ends up needing to pay for more Soyuz seats, it must act fast.  NASA is prohibited from paying Russia for anything associated with the ISS by the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA).

When the law, then called the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA), was first passed in 2000 there were allegations that Russia’s space agency, then headed by Yuri Koptev, was violating the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).  The MTCR is an international agreement that seeks to stem the transfer of ballistic missile technology. Getting Russia to adhere to it was one of the reasons the United States invited Russia to join the ISS program in the first place.  When the INA was being marked up by the House Science Committee in July 1999, then-chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) said:  “Earlier this year, there were publications of the fact that entities of the Russian Space Agency were violating the MTCR.  That’s why there is Section 6 in this bill.”

Section 6 prohibits the U.S. government from making payments to Russia related to ISS after January 1, 1999 unless the President determines and certifies to Congress that Russia is not transferring weapons of mass destruction or missile systems to Iran (or Syria or North Korea as the Act was later amended).  The White House has not been willing to make that certification over all these years.  Consequently, NASA has required waivers from the law in order to enter into contracts with Russia for those services.  Congress passed waivers in 2005, 2008, and 2013. The waiver expires on December 31, 2020.  As Shireman said today, buying more Soyuz seats after that date means reaching agreement not only with Russia, but with Congress since it would have to pass another waiver.

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