NASA will have to rely on Russia for space launches once again.
The American space agency is extending its contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station for the foreseeable future, according NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr.
In a letter to congressional leaders who oversee NASA’s funding on Wednesday, Bolden writes that because of continued reductions to the agency’s budget, a $490 million contract was signed with Russia.
This contract comes after years of limited funding for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a partnership with private companies to develop and fly human space transportation systems.
Congress has cut about $1 billion from President Barack Obama’s request for a Commercial Crew, in the past five years, pushing NASA’s launch date to 2017.
Bolden acknowledged in the letter that although Congress has incrementally increased some funding to the agency, it has not been enough for the Commercial Crew Program. “This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS,” he explains.
NASA ended its Space Shuttle program in 2011 after a review and amid a shift in priorities to exploring deep space, which also included sending astronauts to Mars. As a result, NASA crew members rely on being transported by the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which costs about $70 million a seat. The agency typically purchases six seats a year, according to NASA.
Bolden writes that the next opportunity for the agency to launch a crew into space may be in two years, but that will only be possible with more funding.
“I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry — the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX — to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.”
In 2014, the space agency partnered up with private companies Boeing and SpaceX to help develop transportation for NASA’s crew members to the space station. The Commercial Crew Program was created as a way to help private companies develop a mode of transportation that could carry astronauts into a low Earth orbit in the near future.
NASA has invested about $1.4 billion in contracts and special agreements with private companies. The program’s goal is “to establish safe, reliable and cost-effective access to space,” according to NASA’s website.
Once the new transportation system is up and running, NASA says it will use private spacecraft to “meet its space station crew rotation and emergency return obligations.”
But those achievements won’t be possible without adequate funding, according to Bolden.
“It is my sincere hope that we all agree that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on others to launch humans into space,” he urged, asking Congress to reconsider its funding for the program.