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.