NASA is hoping to begin sending astronauts up to the International Space Station in the coming years with the aid of private space firms like SpaceX and Boeing. However, the agency is planning for the worst and securing an alternate means of transport. No, the Shuttle isn’t being brought out of mothball. NASA has inked a deal with Russian space agency Roscosmos (via Boeing) for as many as five more seats on Soyuz capsules.
Boeing acted as an intermediary for NASA on this deal, which covers two confirmed seats for launches in March and September of 2018. That’s before the expected start of the Commercial Crew Program that will see the SpaceX Dragon 2 and Boeing CST-100 take humans into space on ISS runs. There have been a few delays in these programs, so NASA is hedging its bets.
The two confirmed round-trip seats will cost NASA $74.7 million. But hey, that includes checked luggage! This figure is slightly less than the $81.7 million Russia got the last time the agency booked travel in 2015. The savings are largely thanks to Boeing’s involvement. Russia recently decided to lower its ISS crew complement from three to two cosmonauts, which freed up some spots. Boeing got access to the seats as part of a long-running legal battle with Russian space contractor RSC Energia. The American firm was apparently willing to let them go for less than Russia would have.
What about the other three seats? NASA has the option to buy them, if there’s a need. These will be for launches in 2019 and beyond. At that time, the Commercial Crew Program should be up and running. The first manned test flights of Dragon 2 and CST-100 for NASA are currently targeting the middle of 2018 for manned flights, but that schedule might not hold.
SpaceX Dragon V2
In the event these spacecraft are not ready by 2019, NASA will have those three extra seats available for purchase. One or two of them might go to astronauts from the ESA, JAXA, or another spaceflight partner for which NASA handles transport to the ISS.
NASA and Roscosmos have agreed on a “ride-sharing” arrangement when the Commercial Crew Program is up and running. At least one American will be on each Soyuz launch and one Russian will be on each SpaceX or Boeing launch. This ensures at least one crew member from each nation is on the ISS at all times. The cost for NASA to reach the ISS should go down dramatically when it can buy seats from SpaceX and Boeing.