NASA Looks to Procure More Soyuz Seats Amid Commercial Crew Uncertainty

Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft docking at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Amid uncertainty about the Commercial Crew schedule, NASA has issued a pre-solitication procurement notice to secure additional rides with the Russians for its astronauts.

“NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation ‘Roscosmos’ for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crew member in the Spring of 2020,” the agency said in the Feb. 13 notice.

Boeing and SpaceX are set to conduct two flight tests apiece to the ISS of their Starliner and Crew Dragon vehicles, respectively. The current “planning dates” are:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

After the flight tests are concluded, the vehicles will need to be certified to carry NASA astronauts on commercial missions. That process is expected to take several months.

Crew Dragon for DM-1 mission with Falcon 9 booster. (Credit: SpaceX)

“Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development,” the procurement notice stated. “Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.”

Currently, the last NASA astronaut is expected to return to Earth in December. However, a recent Russian press report states that plan could be extended three months to April 2020.

NASA has been planning to make the second Boeing Starliner flight, now scheduled for no earlier than August, a long-term stay aboard the space station. That plan depends upon the flight tests going well.

“These two seats would allow for US crew presence on ISS through September 2020,” the notice stated. “Based on the current status of the US commercial program this date should allow overlap in capability and protect for continued ISS operation. Overlap with US commercial crew capability is required to allow smooth and safe transition to a new US capability.

“Even after US crew transportation completes its test program, history has shown that developing an operational cadence of flights is difficult,” the notice added. “Launch delays will occur. This overlap in crew transportation capability provides assurance of continuous safe operation and research activity on ISS.”

NASA astronauts have been riding aboard Soyuz vehicles exclusively since the agency retired the space shuttle in July 2011. The procurement of seats actually started five years earlier.

Credit: NASA OIG

The cost of Soyuz seats has risen from a low of $21.8 million in 2007 to about $81.1 million apiece in 2018. NASA spent about $3.37 billion on Soyuz rides during that period.

The pre-solicitation referenced a recommendation that the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel made in its recently published annual report.

Due to the potential for delays in the schedule for the first Commercial Crew Program (CCP) flights with crew, senior NASA leadership should work with the Administration and the Congress to guarantee continuing access to ISS for U.S. crew members until such time that U.S. capability to deliver crew to ISS is established,” ASAP said.

Due to the limitations of the three-seat Soyuz spacecraft, the space station’s maximum crew is six. Commercial crew would allow that number to be expanded to seven. The extra crew member could focus full-time on research.

The procurement notices is reproduced below.

PROCUREMENT OF CREW TRANSPORTATION AND RESCUE SERVICES FROM ROSCOSMOS
Solicitation Number: 80JSC019 ROSCOSMOS
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Office: Johnson Space Center
Location: Mail Code: BG

Notice Type: Presolicitation
Synopsis:
Added: Feb 13, 2019 11:33 am

NASA has a requirement for crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS). These services include launch, return and rescue of U.S. or U.S. designated astronauts and associated services. The associated services include primary and ancillary services not limited to: Launch and return of U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) Crew members to the ISS for planned six-month missions, On-orbit rescue services for the duration of six-month missions and provision of emergency rescue services, Search and Rescue services and recovery at landing site, Theoretical and practical training of Astronauts for nominal, off nominal and sea survival activities for the safe operation of the ISS vehicle, Provision for access to NASA designated support personnel to the launch site including visa support, housing, logistics, security and clearance for facility access, Cargo services for storage, delivery to, and return, from the ISS including disposal of trash from the ISS for cargo associated with crew delivery and return, ascent control flight control operations, rendezvous and on-orbit docking services, on orbit consumables, life support systems and habitability services.

NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crew member in the Spring of 2020.

NASA has contracts with two U.S. commercial companies for crew transportation to the ISS. The Commercial Crew Contracts were initially signed in September 2014 with the first ISS crew rotations planned for December 2017.* Each provider has two test flights planned before the first ISS crew rotation flights; an uncrewed test flight and a short duration, minimum crew test flight. Further, each provider has an additional abort test planned. Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development. Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.

This Soyuz seat procurement ensures uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of a delay in U.S. commercial crew launches, mitigating the significant risk to ISS safety and operations that the absence of U.S. crew members at any point in time would cause. Obtaining this Soyuz transportation provides flexibility and back-up capability without adding unnecessary schedule pressure to our US commercial crew providers. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has recommended that NASA should provide additional back-up capability in case US crew flights are delayed. This will also insure that NASA is meeting its own needs for crew transportation as well as its obligations to the International Partnership. Ten months from now, December 2019, there will no longer be a USOS presence on-board ISS unless action is taken. These two seats would allow for US crew presence on ISS through September 2020. Based on the current status of the US commercial program this date should allow overlap in capability and protect for continued ISS operation. Overlap with US commercial crew capability is required to allow smooth and safe transition to a new US capability. Even after US crew transportation completes its test program, history has shown that developing an operational cadence of flights is difficult. Launch delays will occur. This overlap in crew transportation capability provides assurance of continuous safe operation and research activity on ISS.

As a means to mitigate the aforementioned risks, NASA is issuing this synopsis in order to provide notice of the Agency’s requirements and to determine whether any other potential sources have the current capability to provide these crew transportation services in the required timeframes.

Interested organizations may submit their capabilities and qualifications to provide the crew transportation services described below. Such capabilities/qualifications will be evaluated solely for the purpose of determining whether or not to conduct this procurement on a competitive basis. The determination of whether or not to acquire these services without competition is solely within the discretion of the Government.

Submissions must be provided in writing to the identified point of contact not later than 4:30 p.m. local time on February 28, 2019. Oral communications are not acceptable in response to this notice. The Government does not intend to acquire the described services as a commercial item using FAR Part 12.

* The Post Certification Mission dates reflects the date at Authority to Proceed.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yep, the Soyuz is just so much safer that the Starliner or Dragon2…

    Its also incredible that NASA has spent over $3 billion on Soyuz seats to the ISS.

  • redneck

    Quite incredible. It would seem that in a rational world there would have been a no frills contract let about 2005 for a capsule with a hard 5 year deadline. Atlas and Delta could have been delivering before Shuttle retirement. Between Soyuz seats and commercial crew it looks like about $10B before first crew delivery. Should have been sufficient. Oh wait, I said in a rational world, never mind.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, all NASA had to do was to let the Orbital Space Plane program go forward. But someone at NASA decided that since the Atlas was not certified for human flight it would be to dangerous to put a capsule on it, so you got the Stick which was suppose to be better (LOL).

    Ironically the Boeing CST-100 which will launch on the “dangerous” Atlas V seems to be very similar to one of the Boeing designs entered for it. The other Boeing design proposed looked to be based on the X-37B interestingly enough. And Lockheed had one they looked an awful lot like the Dream Chaser.

  • Jeff Smith

    A no brainer to manage the schedule risk.

  • Robert G. Oler

    the record of the Soyuz is quite amazing given the state of the Russian space program…

  • Robert G. Oler

    its unclear that would have been any more successful

  • Robert G. Oler

    As someone who along with Rich Kolker had the concept of commercial crew/cargo published in 1996 (the Weekly Standard) a few things have surprised me about Commercial cargo and crew…particularly crew …and a few things have not

    some musings

    1. its been hard for US aerospace companies to adapt to fixed cost contracts. No real surprise here for the standard suspects, but the big surprise is that SpaceX has not done much better. Both OSC and SpaceX did a pretty good job with commercial cargo…and it will be interesting to see how SNC comes along with its entry into commercial cargo.

    but both SX and boeing have not done all that well with CCrew. Boeing has had to adapt its commercial airplane knowledge of operational systems to very low rate production in an environment which has traditionally been on its military side. One problem was that the good talent at Boeing Commercial went into the 77X, 787 and 738 programs.where the career paths were firmly established and the company has a solid future. It was only after SL got into trouble that Boeing moved talent

    SpaceX has had a hard time adapting to human flight. They treat commercial crew as a “cargo” in terms of almost everything…and its not served them well. Couple this with Musk bad choice (which seems to be his and his alone) on propulsive landing (something teh customer did not want) it wasted a lot of time…

    2. NASA has not helped this with its concentration on Orion/SLS. the ideal thing (and something we advocated in the piece) would have been for CST and Dragon2 to be the launching point for a series of “new” vehicles to expand commercial crew outside the station ops.. you can see how the reality of commercial cargo expanding is affecting the design of at least OSC’s machine. OSC clearly envisions a future for its cargo craft…they are exploring using it as a free flyer, a station reboost machine and a supply system for lunar ops

    BOEING has ideas about how to use the 100 in future “other roles”…but it seems as if SPACEX has tired of Dragon and is moving on to its super machine which probably makes working on Dragon2 a dead end career path inside the company

    3. its been hard for both companies (and Boeing should have done better in this, it has the experience and expertise) to deal with the unique requirements of crew safety. Things have slipped in both programs BUT Boeing has the expertise to have seen the issues earlier. but again it was not until recently in the program…it was on other programs

    4. its unclear “now” that the reusability aspects of the two vehicles is a useful thing. OSC with its expendable craft is making constant changes in the design and the build rate has sustained that. with both the crewed vehicles being “refurbishable” (and I realize SpaceX is building new vehicles but at low rate) its unclear that a lot of evolution will occur.

    5. in short it has been harder to transition to commercial ops…then our article seemed to grasp 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    How so? Boeing’s design was basically the same as they submitted for the Commercial Crew Program. And the Atlas V has not changed that much if at all. Then add in that it would have been a traditional government cost plus contract instead of a fixed price one and I don’t see how it would not be successful.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Or, like the Shuttle was before Challenger and Columbia, they have been very very lucky.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Looks like SpaceX will be consolidating its Starship construction and operations in Boca Chica, abandoning plans to build it in California and to do test flight from Florida. One of the advantages of not having to keep Congress Critters happy is that you are able to base decisions on cost/benefits economics rather that poltics. Go Starship!

    https://www.teslarati.com/spacex-job-openings-starship-super-heavy-booster-texas-production/

    SpaceX job posts confirm Starship’s Super Heavy booster will be built in Texas
    by Eric Ralph
    February 16, 2019

    “A duo of SpaceX job postings at the company’s South Texas facilities have confirmed that both Starship and Super Heavy “flight article” vehicles will initially be fabricated and assembled on-site in Boca Chica, also implying that the rocket’s first orbital launch attempts will occur in the same vicinity.”

    BTW the illustration of the Starship/Super Heavy by the Starhopper is great!

  • Robert G. Oler

    the problems that both companies are having is a symptom of several things…not just the contracting method…and changing the contracting method is essential to success. NASA can no longer build anything successfully on the cost plus contract

  • Smokey_the_Bear
  • Robert G. Oler

    no the Soyuz is very very simple compared to the orbiter

  • duheagle

    Yeah. For a fat girl, they really don’t sweat very much.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The great thing about the OSP was that the first flights of the two winners were planned for 2008, before Dr. Griffin forced his architecture on NASA. Indeed, SLS/Orion are legacies of his architecture.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And yet it killed like the Shuttle did. Indeed, if you take into account the difference in size and flight frequency it’s death rate is probably not that much less than the Shuttle.

  • Robert G. Oler

    Hmm. that is a possible metric to analyze …but if you are going to do that then you need to take into account the 9 shuttle “close calls” which had things moved a bit different would have been catastrophic as well. to be fair 3 of these were 51L close calls so they would have stopped the shuttle program just like 51L did so it all depends how you count them…

    And A thing to keep in mind with the shuttle is that the Russian “near miss” and fatalities were equipment failures…where as the shuttle failures were of a particularly nasty kind ie they were caused by flying with known defects that essentially were ignored and allowed to eventually what we call “narrow” to no margin and caused loss of the vehicle.

    its really hard to overstate the complete lack of a safety culture that caused the two shuttle accidents…which is not a problem with the Russians. at least it seems that way.

    I actually think the Russian margin of safety is now decreasing a bit due to economics but all in all without a doubt the Soyuz right now has the best safety record in active flying vehicles…and it is a tribute to the ruggedness of the design that it still maintains that.

    its not luck…luck aka random chance has nothing to do with safety.

    With everything I read I am really quite surprised that SpaceX worked themselves into a pickle with the chute issue. its just plain not paying attention to how safety systems work in modern crew and people related systems. these lessons go back past three mile island but that was the founding of modern safety analysis and either they dont understand it…or are not interested in it.

    as an aside…it is my impression that the shuttle could have been made “safe” …but the NASA of that era was going to have to do what SpaceX is at some point going to have to do if they intend to really start operating vehicles like BF whatever…and that is hire and listen to people who have a real clue how to put together a safety system and run it

    Virgin had this same problem but after the accident they got the religion and its my impression and more importantly that of the FAA and USAF (and I am not sure why the USAF cares…but I found this out the other day that they have looked into the safety system there…I am guessing in terms of the plane launched rocket) that in the words of the FAA study Virgins safety system and program “is on par with both the USN submarine fleet and a modern 121 airline” which are the two gold standards

  • Robert G. Oler

    Griffin is one of the drivers of SLS but he was not alone…there was solid political support for it

    Incidentally I dont think SLS is that safe a program

  • Larry J

    Yes, the Soyuz had two fatal accidents. The first was on Soyuz 1 in 1967. It was a foolishly (politically) rushed test flight that ended in disaster. The second fatal accident was on Soyuz 11 in 1971. Since then, there have been close calls but no fatalities. Their biggest problems were in the program’s early days. By way of contrast, Challenger was destroyed on the 25th Shuttle flight and Columbia on the 107rd. NASA had a lot of close calls throughout the Shuttle program but apparently didn’t fix the problems until people died.

  • Jeff2Space

    At this point the schedule risk appears to be self inflicted. OIG warned NASA about this.

    https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/IG-16-028.pdf

    From above:

    “To improve NASA’s oversight of the Commercial Crew Program, we recommended the Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (1) implement procedures to monitor the timeliness of NASA’s review process for hazard reports to help reduce risk to the Program’s schedule and (2) coordinate with Boeing and SpaceX to document a path to timely resolution for variance requests and hazard reports that have exceeded the review period goals.”

    My guess is that NASA didn’t take the above warnings as seriously as they should have.

  • Steve

    I wonder what will be more effective in curbing illegal immigration, Trump’s wall that cuts directly thru SpaceX property in Boca Chica, or the flame trench which might be active once a day.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, imagining just adding a fourth chute to the Dragon2, instead of using three chutes like every other capsule uses. How reckless of SpaceX…

  • ThomasLMatula

    I expect they will just go to an offshore platform for the orbital version, especially when its operational. It offers a lot more flexibility and safety. Remember the power output of the orbital Super Heavy is 50% more than a Saturn V booster.

  • Flatley

    Richard Shelby will be 88 in 2022, I don’t think there’s any way SLS survives without him if he retires. If it even survives that long.

  • Robert G. Oler

    I think for the size of the chutes they had to

  • savuporo

    What you gonna do if your domestic aerospace industry has been dismantled so much that you can’t put a capsule on top of a rocket for a decade ?

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem wasn’t putting a capsule on top of a rocket, but the time required for filling out all the paperwork for it 😄

  • windbourne

    NASA did not spend that. House GOP did that.

  • windbourne

    I would argue that it was the House GOP that caused this.
    They constantly gutted the Commercial Crew while throwing billions more at SLS each year.

  • windbourne

    ???
    This was decided long ago.
    Even back when the hopper was first explained, Elon said that all they are doing is assembling the BFS/BFRs there. Basically, the engineering and part manufacturing will still happen in CA, and other states.
    This way, they can actually get good help where it is needed.