NASA Signs New Contract with Roscosmos For ISS Crew Launches

NASA Signs New Contract with Roscosmos For ISS Crew Launches

NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, signed an extension of the contract under which Russia transports crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  The extension provides for launches through 2016 and return and rescue services through 2017.

The $424 million contract provides for transporting six astronauts, who could be American, European, Japanese or Canadian.   The Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs ISS operations requires the United States to provide transportation for astronauts from all of those countries.  When the IGA was signed in 1998, the U.S. space shuttle was intended to be available throughout the space station’s operational lifetime and those astronauts were to travel back and forth on the shuttle.   The United States decided to terminate the space shuttle, but remains obligated for providing those services for its non-Russian partners.

Since the end of the shuttle program, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only way to get to and from the ISS.   It also serves as the “lifeboat” for the ISS, providing escape in case of an emergency.   There is always one or two Soyuz spacecraft docked at the station depending on how many crew members are aboard so each person has a seat.

in a blog post, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden used the occasion to stress the need for Congress to approve the $821 million requested in FY2014 for the commercial crew program to ensure that no further contract extensions are needed.   NASA is determined to have U.S. astronauts launched from U.S. soil on U.S.-built systems as soon possible, hopefully by 2017.  Congress has provided roughly half the money NASA has requested in prior years for the commercial crew program, however, giving priority instead to the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft that Congress directed NASA to build in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. 

SLS/Orion is intended to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), where ISS is located.  By law, however, it must also serve as a backup to commercial crew in case the commercial systems do not materialize.   NASA officials have said that SLS/Orion, once operational, could indeed transport astronauts to the ISS, but it would not be cost effective.   SLS is scheduled to have its first test flight in 2017, and the first flight with a crew-capable Orion is expected in 2021.   The ISS partners have agreed to operate ISS until 2020, so that would be after the end of the space station’s operational period.   NASA is talking about continuing to operate ISS until 2028, but no agreement has been reached domestically or internationally.

The $424 million contract extension to transport six astronauts means each “seat” costs approximately $71 million.  This is higher than the $63 million figure often quoted for today’s cost, but the NASA press release says it includes additional launch site support that was previously included in a different contract, so may not be an apples-to-apples comparison.

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