U.S. astronauts may continue to launch aboard Soyuz into 2020
According to a report from the Russian news agency TASS, not only will U.S. astronauts launch to the International Space Station (ISS) in a Soyuz spacecraft through 2019, but also there is a strong possibility that Boeing will engage their Russian counterpart to continue the service through 2020.
“We have contracts signed for 2017, 2018 and 2019,” stated Vladimir Solntsev, Director General of Energia, in an article with TASS. “At present, we are negotiating contracts (that will be implemented) after 2020 and the chances that they will be signed are very high.”
Russia – still the only ride to the ISS
Following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA and its partners have relied on Russia to ferry astronauts to the orbiting outpost. Though there were several vehicles capable of delivering supplies to the ISS, Russia’s Soyuz was the only spacecraft capable of carrying crew to space and returning them safely to Earth.
Understanding this, NASA engaged the private industry in developing crew-capable spacecraft, ultimately selecting SpaceX and Boeing as part of the Commercial Crew Program. That program aimed to return crewed launches to U.S. soil in 2015.
However, delays have beset both commercial partners, and a report from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) indicates flight certification for both might not occur until the latter half of 2018, more than seven years after the Shuttle last flew and three years later than the original projected date.
This leaves Russia as the only option to deliver crew to the ISS and bring them back to Earth.
Buying Soyuz seats from… Boeing?
Though Russia may be the only ride to the ISS, NASA has options from which to choose to buy those seats. Should further delays to Commercial Crew threaten to impact operations of the station, NASA may very well have to procure more seats on the Russian spacecraft.
However, they might not necessarily have to contract those flights with Russia directly.
In fact, NASA may be gearing up to ask their Boeing partner to call in the Soyuz seats they were awarded as part of a $320 million judgment the American company received in a legal dispute with Energia over Sea Launch.
Indeed, Boeing has already sold some of their seats to NASA for flights in 2017 and 2018, and the space agency has inked an option to procure three more seats in 2019.
With such a thin margin between currently contracted seats and the availability of commercial flights from U.S. soil, it would appear that NASA is making preparations to ensure they do not lose the capability to deliver astronauts to the ISS should the Commercial Crew program encounter further delays.
Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.