Reluctant NASA Extends Contract with Russia on Flights to ISS

NASA has been upset with Congress cutting its funds by over $300 million that has forced the US space agency to renew contract with Russia to send its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Denied of alternatives, a reluctant NASA said on Wednesday that it had extended its contract with Russia through 2017 at a cost of about $490 million, NASA chief Charles Bolden wrote to US Congress. It means the US is paying $70 million per seat aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The International Space Station orbits Earth roughly once every 90 minutes and scientists can see sun rise 16 times in a day. (NASA Photo)

The International Space Station orbits Earth roughly once every 90 minutes and scientists can see sun rise 16 times in a day. (NASA Photo)

“Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress … has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned,” Bolden wrote. “This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews,” he said.

Already buoyant with its plans for another space station, Russia is feared to overtake NASA in the space race as the U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted to cut over $300 million from NASA’s budget early this year crippling the US space agency to cancel its agreements with private players like SpaceX and Boeing to build rockets for missions from 2017.

“I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee does not fully support NASA’s plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible, and instead focuses to write checks to Russia,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said earlier when the decision was announced few months ago.

He said the contract would further strengthen Russian space project at the cost of NASA’s own efforts. “By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space – and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own,” he noted.

NASA has recently signed contract worth $4.2 billion with Boeing and $2.6 billion with SpaceX to send manned missions to the moon though future missions will be affected from budget cut. Democrat Senator Bill Nelson of Florida has been on the forefront against the budget cut. “We need to wake up to what is happening,” he said.

The worst affected from the delay is SpaceX, which has pushed its plan to build a massive new airport hangar to keep its Falcon Heavy vehicle and two Falcon 9 rockets, just adjacent the Kennedy Space Center.

The public-private partnership envisioned by NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, roping in privately owned SpaceX and Boeing to develop space taxis to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, a $100 billion space lab that orbits 250 miles (402 km) above Earth.

However, even the private players like Orbital ATK, one of two companies that fly cargo to the space station under a separate NASA program, said it received Russian engines for its refurbished Antares rocket that had gone bust in an accident in October 2014.

Despite US sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine issue, these non-military missions did not affect the space program.

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