NASA Wants to Buy Two More Soyuz Seats

NASA Wants to Buy Two More Soyuz Seats

NASA released a presolicitation announcement on February 13 that reveals it is considering purchasing two more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) and serve as “lifeboats” while they are aboard.  The action comes as NASA’s existing contract with Russia for such services expires and new U.S. systems are getting close to conducting test launches, but their operational dates are uncertain.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It pays Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, to take astronauts to and from the ISS on its Soyuz spacecraft.  The spacecraft remained docked at ISS and serve as lifeboats should the crew need to evacuate in an emergency.

On February 13, NASA’s Johnson Space Center released a notice of “Procurement of Crew Transportation and Rescue Services from Roscosmos” stating that the agency is “considering” buying two more seats from Roscosmos to take one person to ISS in the fall of 2019 and another in the spring of 2020.

Noting that the two U.S. commercial crew providers, Boeing and SpaceX, are planning test flights this year, the notice states that “[p]ast experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development.”

Indeed, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have been warning NASA for more than a year that it needs a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are not ready.  At the same time, the schedules for the commercial crew test flights continue to slip.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency.  NASA emphasizes that ISS operations require at least one American and one Russian to be aboard since most of the systems were provided by the two countries and each has a mission control center needed for ISS operations.

As the solicitation makes clear:

The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.

The ISS is divided into the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS), which includes modules and systems from the United  States, Europe, Canada, and Japan, and the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS).  The solicitation notice points out that under current plans, by December 2019 “there will no longer be a USOS presence onboard ISS unless action is taken.  These two seats would allow US crew presence on ISS through September 2020” providing time for a “smooth and safe transition” to operational flights of the U.S. commercial crew systems.

NASA is releasing the notice to determine if there are other potential sources that “have the current capability” to provide such services.  Responses are due by February 28, after which NASA will determine whether to proceed with a competitive procurement, but reserves the right to issue a sole source award.

The notice does not indicate how much it would cost to buy two more seats.  Currently NASA pays Roscosmos about $81 million per seat.  NASA has said in the past that it takes three years to negotiate with Russia to obtain more seats because it takes that long to build a Soyuz, although that seems questionable since Russia plans to continue building Soyuz spacecraft for its own purposes.  Each Soyuz can accommodate three people and Russia is offering seats to other customers to fly non-professional astronauts — sometimes called spaceflight participants or tourists —  so it would appear that seats are available.  The United Arab Emirates, for example, plans to fly its first astronaut to ISS aboard a Soyuz this year.  Russia media sources say the price is about $45-50 million for a one-week flight.

NASA is prohibited from purchasing anything from Russia in connection with the ISS by the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) unless it receives a waiver from Congress, but that does not appear to be an issue.  The most recent waiver, included in the Space Exploration Sustainability Act (P.L. 112-273) signed into law on January 14, 2013, covers through December 31, 2020.

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