Congressional Cuts Force NASA to Send More Money to Russia

Soyuz TMA-22 crew in space. (Credit: NASA TV)
Soyuz TMA-22 crew in space. (Credit: NASA TV)

NASA’s bill for crew transportation services to the International Space Station is expected to rise to more than $2 billion with the space agency’s latest decision to extend an agreement with the Russian space agency Roscosmos through the spring of 2018.

NASA plans to purchase six additional seats aboard Russian Soyuz transports for 2017 plus emergency crew rescue services through the spring of 2018. A similar deal the space agency signed last May for 2016 and 2017 cost $424 million, or roughly $70 million per seat. How much the new agreement will cost is unknown, but costs have risen sharply over the past several years.

NASA’s decision to once again extend the agreement is a result of delays in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which the space agency and the Obama Administration have blamed on Congress’ unwillingness to provide adequate funding for the effort.

Since NASA launched the program in 2009, Congress has reduced the Administration’s budget requests for it by $1 billion. The result has been a delay in start of U.S. crew service from 2015 to 2018. Congress has diverted much of the funding it cut from commercial crew requests to fund the Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which are intended to facility deep-space human exploration in the 2020’s.

The delays have resulted in multiple contract extensions with the Russians, with the costs of seats rising sharply with each new agreement. The space agency has signed at least $1.6 billion in contracts with the Russians for crew transportation services to cover the period following the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.

Below is a list of crew transport agreements between NASA and Roscosmos. The list might be incomplete; I believe NASA purchased additional seats for 2012, but I was unable to find figures for it.

 NASA Purchase of Soyuz Transportation Services
of Seats
Total Cost
Cost Per Seat
2011, 20123$141 $47
2013, 20146$335 $55.83
2014, 201512$753 $62.75
2016, 20176$424$70.67
TOTALS:27$1,653 $61.22

The three companies competing in the Commercial Crew Program — Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX — have promised to launch astronauts at significantly lower prices. There is some partial data out there to show how much those services could cost.

SpaceX has publicly stated that it is aiming to charge $140 million per launch of the Dragon crew vehicle aboard its Falcon 9 rocket. With a full load of seven crew members, each seat would cost $20 million apiece.

Bigelow Aerospace, which is planning to launch commercial space stations later in the decade, has transportation agreements with both SpaceX and Boeing. The company has said a seat aboard SpaceX Dragon would cost $26.25 million while a seat aboard Boeing’s seven-passenger CST-100 vehicle would cost $36.75 million.

The large price difference is likely due to the higher cost of the Atlas V rocket that Boeing would use to launch the CST-100 capsule. Boeing has said it is exploring whether it would be possible to launch its crew vehicle aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 as a way to lower costs.

Sierra Nevada Corporation has not released an estimates of what it would cost to launch crews aboard its seven-seat Dream Chaser shuttle. The company also plans to use the Atlas V as a launch vehicle.

The start of U.S. commercial service would allow the space station crew size to be expanded from six to seven.  The increase would allow one crew member to conduct research on a full-time basis.

  • windbourne

    We so need to clean out the house. These ppl scream about supporting Russia, yet gut private space because private space will nullify the need for SLS, or jobs in neo-con districts. A part of me really wants to see the tea* take over the republican party. They will at least cut spending like the SLS and help private space win out.

    Now with that said, why is NASA extending this? SpaceX will likely finish the job in 2015, assuming that NASA does not just cut them out. IOW, spaceX should be launching humans in early 2016 including to set up BA-Alpha.

  • Hug Doug

    SpaceX might be ready to fly people in 2015, but NASA doesn’t have the authorization to buy seats from them yet. If SpaceX really is ready to fly in 2015, that might change, particularly if SpaceX offers a price that really undercuts the Russian’s prices. Either way, the Commercial Crew program is undergoing some revamping and that should be done by this summer.

    I’m not sure that Bigelow can get enough financial backers / renters to make a private space station operational by 2016. Investors will probably want to wait until the Bigelow module on the ISS is tested, so they will have to start small and work their way up, one module at a time.

  • windbourne

    Authorization? You are suggesting from CONgress?
    If so, that will be interesting if the house attempts to block that.
    Hopefully, NASA has an out on the seats. Perhaps SpaceX can start as soon as 2016.

  • Hug Doug

    they probably could. we’ll see. like i said, the Commercial Crew program is being worked on and is supposed to be done by this summer.

  • Robert Gishubl

    I love Congress by my numbers they cut Commercial crew by $1112m to save money and spend $1,653m on Soyuz seats. That is a saving of -$541m, or is that additional cost that goes to Russia instead of being invested in US technology and Industrial capability, not to mention US jobs in a new emerging industry.
    This is before you remember the original COTS program had a crew element that NASA wanted funding for but Congress never allowed it, where would commercial crew be if SpaceX had been paid to work on crew systems since 2006?.

  • therealdmt


  • Stuart

    Excuse my cynicism but why pay more to Russia than your own domestic developers something just doesn’t add up? This might explain why the US national debt is $16 trillion+… the lunatics are running the asylum!

  • Hug Doug

    It’s over 17 trillion now, but your point is well made.

  • Paul451

    It makes perfect sense when you consider that Commercial Crew threatens the big pork like SLS/Orion; the Soyuz capsules don’t. So if you are a Congressman/Senator who has been bought-and-paid-for by SLS contractors, you will see the Commercial Crew program as The Enemy much much more than the Russians.

  • windbourne

    oddly, these same ppl that are pushing the SLS, are the same ones that scream about trusting Russia.