On Tuesday, NASA announced it had extended a deal with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station. The deal covers bringing six astronauts up to the ISS in 2016 and rescue and return services through 2017. The price: $424 million, or about $70 million per seat, up from the $63 million per seat in the previous agreement. (The press release indicates the agreement includes some services that were previously covered under a separate contract, complicating an apples-to-apples comparison.)
The contract extension as hardly a surprise, but NASA leadership used it as an opportunity to make the case for fully funding the agency’s commercial crew program so that additional extensions of the Soyuz deal aren’t needed. “Further delays in our Commercial Crew Program and its impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable. That’s why we need the full $821 million the President has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track to meet our 2017 deadline and bring these launches back to the United States,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a separate blog post yesterday.
Bolden made similar arguments last week in testimony to Congress. “This is a year of decision” for commercial crew, Bolden said last Thursday at a hearing on the NASA budget proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee. “If we do not get $822 million in the 2014 budget as requested by the President, it will be my unfortunate duty to advise the Congress and the President that we probably will not make 2017 for the availability of an American capability to get our astronauts to space, and I will have to tell you that I’m going to have to come back and ask for authorization to once again pay the Russians to take our crews to space.” (The discrepancy between the $822 million above and the $821 million in yesterday’s blog post likely stems from the fact the budget specifically requests an amount between the two: $821.4 million.)
At that hearing, though, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of both the CJS subcommittee and full appropriations committee, was critical of the funding sought for commercial crew, which he feared was coming at the expense of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles, which diverts, I think, critical resources from NASA’s goal of developing human spaceflight capabilities with the SLS,” he said in his opening statement. He said that the companies that have received funded Space Act Agreements were not as accountable as they should be regarding the progress they’ve made or in revealing how much of their own money they have invested in these efforts. “This sounds like a great arrangement for the companies, but I don’t believe it’s a great arrangement for the taxpayer.”