NASA Signs $424 Million Russian Crew Launch Extension for Space Station Missions
NASA has signed a $424 million contract extension with Roscosmos, the Russian federal space agency, to assure the launch and return of U. S., European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts to and from the International Space Station aboard Soyuz spacecraft through 2017, while Congress and the White House debate funding levels for the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program initiative.
The three-year-old initiative, intended to restore a U. S. astronaut launch capability lost with the shuttle fleet’s retirement in mid-2011, originally aimed for a 2015 startup.
That startup target has slipped to 2017. It could slide further, if Congress fails to provide the $821 million sought in President Obama’s 2014 budget proposal, which was presented to the House and Senate on April 10, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has warned in budget briefings and hearings since.
“While our Russian counterparts have been good partners, it is unacceptable that we don’t currently have an American capability to launch our own astronauts,” Bolden stressed again Tuesday in a NASA blog that accompanied the extension announcement.
The extension provides for the training, launch and return of six astronauts assigned by NASA and its space station partners during the one year amendment period.
Currently, NASA is nurturing efforts by Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX to develop capsules or a small shuttle craft options capable of launching up to seven astronauts to the station from the U. S. The new space vessels would remain docked to the orbiting science lab for more than 200 days, then return the fliers to U. S. soil for the first time since the final shuttle mission.
Russian Soyuz launch and landing operations are based in Kazakhstan.
In his 2012 budget request, President Obama’s envisioned $850 million annually for the commercial initiative through 2016. Congress agreed to $406 million in 2012, and though NASA’s 2013 sequester adjusted operating plan for 2013 has not yet been presented to Congress, the designated level appears to be about $525 million.
“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,” Bolden blogged. ”I’m confident that our ambitious plan for U. S. crew transportation, if fully funded, will allow U. S. commercial companies to launch our astronauts in just a few short years. I’m bullish on the American aerospace industry, and I’m committed to gaining the support of the U. S. Congress to fully fund our investments in these companies and bring untold benefits to our economy.”