Pressure mounts on Commercial Crew as Russia plans to stop flying U.S. astronauts to ISS
Amidst worsening conditions between the United States and Russia, the contract that provides U.S. astronauts with transportation to and from the International Space Station – is a few months away from expiring. The close of this agreement coincides with the time that NASA and its commercial partners hope to conduct the first test flights of so-called “space taxis” to the orbiting lab.
The current timeline of when the two commercial companies that NASA has awarded $6.8 billion to, Boeing and SpaceX, has the manufacturers slated to carry out the first crewed test flights in mid-2019 and April of the same year. April is the same month that the contract NASA has with the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities (more commonly known as “Roscosmos”) – expires.
The timeline of these upcoming flights was released on Aug. 2, as was noted by Justin Bachman in a report that appeared on Bloomberg.
At present, SpaceX is eyeing an April 2019 launch date for its crewed test flight (dubbed Demo-2) to the ISS with Boeing hoping to match that feat some time later in the year (Boeing has encountered technical issues with Starliner’s Aerojet Rocketdyne-produced abort engines). The budgetary and technical issues NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) has encountered, have provided Russia with a monopoly on access to the station.
Under this agreement, astronauts with NASA are ferried to and from the space station via Soyuz-FG rockets and Soyuz spacecraft – to the tune of more than $80 million per seat. In fact, except for Russia, astronauts from all of the other space agencies rely on Roscosmos for transportation to and from the ISS.
Last year (2017) an extension to the contract NASA had entered into with Roscosmos, was agreed upon – pushing it to the April 2019 closure date.
The Russian-built Soyuz spacecraft has served as a recent source of concern in terms of the safety of as well as access to the space station. The last Soyuz to arrive at the ISS, MS-09, began leaking air due to a hole within two of the spacecraft’s modules. As the vehicle is connected to the station, the leak registered with flight controllers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. Expedition 56 crew members have patched the hole but comments made by representatives with Roscosmos have increased the need for NASA to have its own means of access to the ISS.
The suggestion that the MS-09 spacecraft was sabotaged has been raised by Roscosmos’ head, Dmitry Rogozin. A report appearing on The Guardian noted that officials with Roscosmos stated that a “wavering hand” had drilled the hole discovered on the MS-09 spacecraft. This suggests that the hole was either caused by human error – or sabotage. This troubling event has made the first flights of the Commercial Crew Program all the more important.
NASA has touted the progress made under CCP. However, the program has seen several delays from the planned first flights that were supposed to take place in 2015 (under the Commercial Crew Development phase of the imitative) but insuffucient funding caused these flights to be delayed.
NASA has lacked the ability to launch astronauts since the close of the Space Shuttle Program on July 21, 2011. Dependent on Russia for access to a station that the U.S. space agency mostly built, the agency has waited for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready to relieve the agency from this situation.
Repeated delays have caused the agency to reconsider policies that were originally put in place for crew safety. Perhaps one of the most noted of these was the reconsideration of having crew board SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft before its launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, has been fueled. The Sept. 2016 explosion that saw the loss of the Amos-6 satellite and its Falcon 9 launcher helped underscore this potential issue. For its part, NASA has tentatively agreed to review and sign off on the procedure should SpaceX demonstrate it meets the agency’s criteria.
When the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis carried out the final flight of the program, they placed a U.S. flag within the ISS which was to be retrieved by the next crew to launch from U.S. soil. With Roscosmos looking to conclude its transportation services agreement with NASA, the U.S. Space Agency is working to see the flag back to Earth as soon as possible.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.