NASA Looks to Purchase Additional Soyuz Seats — From Boeing!

Credit: NASA
Soyuz and Progress vehicles docked at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

After months of saying it had no plans to purchase any additional Russian Soyuz seats to take U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA is looking to do exactly that.

Only there’s a twist: NASA won’t be purchasing the seats directly from the Russians. They will be buying them from Boeing, which has obtained already purchased five seats from Soyuz manufacturer RSC Energia.

The news was revealed in a  pre-solicitation for ISS crew transportation that NASA posted on the U.S. government procurement website on Tuesday. The move comes three days before the Obama Administration ends with the swearing in of president elect Donald Trump at noon on Friday.

So, here’s the story: Boeing has purchased five seats on future Soyuz flights. These include single seats in Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 and three additional seats in 2019.

NASA is looking to purchase the seats in 2017 and 2018 to carry its astronauts to ISS. The space agency would purchase the three seats in 2019 as backups in case Boeing and SpaceX experience further delays in developing their Starliner and Crew Dragon vehicles under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

To date, NASA has only booked Soyuz seats through the end of 2018.  According to the latest schedule, Boeing and SpaceX are targeting the following dates for flight tests of their vehicles:

  • SpaceX Crew Dragon Demonstration Mission 1 (No Crew): November 2017
  • Boeing Starliner Orbital Flight Test (No Crew: June 2018
  • SpaceX Crew Dragon Demonstration Mission 2 (Crew): May 2018
  • Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test (Crew): August 2018.

Assuming all goes well, the flight tests would be followed several months later by formal certification of the vehicles to carry astronauts to the space station on a commercial basis. In theory, both vehicles would be certified by the end of 2018, allowing commercial missions to begin in 2019.

However, both schedules are tight. In its annual report released earlier this month, the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel said there is a real possibility of further delays given past schedule slips and the number of technical challenges that lie ahead for both companies.

SpaceX is running about 20 months behind schedule on its first Crew Dragon flight test under its current contract. Boeing is about 16 months behind schedule.

UPDATE: SpaceNews has more on the possible deal:

Boeing gained access to the seats as part of an agreement with Energia to settle a legal dispute regarding Sea Launch. Boeing won a judgment of more than $320 million against Energia from a federal court in May 2016, but subsequent legal filings indicated that the two companies were negotiating a settlement.

“We got together with Energia and discussed what in-kind things that we could perhaps put on the table that might offset this debt,” John Elbon, vice president and general manager of space exploration at Boeing, said in a Jan. 17 interview. Part of the broader agreement between the two companies included rights to the Soyuz seats, but he said specific details of the settlement agreement between the companies were proprietary.

Elbon said that Boeing then decided to offer the seats to NASA in an unsolicited proposal to the agency. “They have expressed some interest” in the proposal, he said, leading to the sources sought filing. “We’ll go through the process and figure out if there’s an opportunity for us to make a deal.”

The near-term seats will allow NASA to add an additional crewmember to the U.S. segment of the station, which the agency was already planning to do once commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX enter service. “Adding an extra U.S. crewmember in 2017 and 2018 will really help with the utilization on board and getting more hours for science,” Elbon said.