While NASA’s commercial crew program continues to demonstrate progress—the first test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may occur as soon as March 2—there are no guarantees the vehicles will be ready for operational flights to the International Space Station by early 2020.
NASA’s last contracted flight with Russia is for a mission set to launch in July.
The Soyuz MS-13 vehicle will carry cosmonaut Aleksandr Skvortsov, NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan, and Italian astronaut Luca Parmitano for a six- or seven-month stay on the International Space Station. After this, NASA would be at risk of having no more of its people on the orbiting laboratory.
The agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned the agency last year that due to potential delays in the commercial crew program, NASA should look into buying more Soyuz seats from Russia. “Senior NASA leadership should work with the Administration and the Congress to guarantee continuing access to ISS for US crew members until such time that US capability to deliver crew to ISS is established,” the safety panel recommended.
Now, NASA is doing just that. In a procurement posted online, first noticed by NASASpaceFlight.com, the agency says it is considering contracting with Russia’s state space corporation, Roscosmos, for two additional Soyuz seats. These flights, for one crew member each, would occur in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020. These two seats would ensure a US crew presence on the station through September 2020.
The procurement does not disclose a price for the seats, which cost NASA $81 million each the last time the agency bought them from Roscosmos. This cost includes training to fly on board the Soyuz spacecraft. It is likely that some members of Congress, who have fully funded the commercial crew program since 2017 to end NASA’s reliance on Russia for transport, will be displeased with the request for additional funds to pay Russia.
The alternative is untenable, NASA says. “The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats,” the procurement states. “The absence of US crew members at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.”
In its latest update earlier this month, NASA said it anticipates SpaceX will perform its first crewed mission to the space station in July 2019 and Boeing to perform its first crewed mission no earlier than August. However, those dates are likely to slip further. Moreover, certification of both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner vehicles for “operational” mission will likely take several months after the first crew test flights.
“Even after US crew transportation completes its test program, history has shown that developing an operational cadence of flights is difficult,” the procurement states. “Launch delays will occur. This overlap in crew transportation capability provides assurance of continuous safe operation and research activity on ISS.”