NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos have started negotiating for at least two more years of Soyuz flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by U.S., European, Japanese and Canadian astronauts, as the space shuttle era draws to a close with no other replacement available.
“We are negotiating for more Soyuz seats because we’re nearing the three-year lead time for ordering seats beyond the current contract,” the U.S. agency stated Feb. 9. “We are beginning discussions on the acquisition of crew-rotation services for 2014 and 2015.”
NASA already has stopped using shuttles to deliver crew to the ISS. Under its latest contract with Roscosmos, it will pay $55.8 million a seat for six trips to the ISS in 2013-14, up 9% from the current $51 million-a-seat price. Those prices include the rides to and from space, use of the three-seat Soyuz vehicles as lifeboats while they are docked at the station, and training for flying in the Russian capsules.
Each Soyuz is commanded by a Russian cosmonaut, with the other two crewmembers serving as flight engineers on the way up and down.
Under its barter deals with its European, Japanese and Canadian partners, NASA is responsible for getting station crewmembers from those agencies to and from the station. Originally the shuttle was to have been the vehicle for those flights, but NASA shifted to Soyuz after the Columbia accident hastened the shuttle’s retirement.
NASA has two or perhaps three more shuttle missions to the ISS scheduled before the fleet is retired, all of them designed to transport as much cargo to the station as possible and to bring back scientific samples and worn-out equipment.
While the shuttles are retiring this year, plans call for the U.S. to continue using the ISS until at least 2020 — a five-year extension from earlier plans — so more Soyuz seats will be needed beyond those already purchased.
Ultimately the U.S. agency plans to buy seats on commercial vehicles under development with government seed money to deliver crews to the ISS. However, none of those vehicles is ready yet and probably will not be before the current Soyuz contract expires.
“We will plan to overlap U.S. commercial transportation services with Soyuz services,” NASA says.
While the U.S. agency said it is interested only in buying seats in 2014 and 2015, Anatoly Perminov, the head of Roscosmos, told Russian reporters the discussions could cover flights until 2017.