NASA Extends Contract for Russian Transport to ISS; Shireman is New ISS Program Manager
NASA notified Congress by letter today that it has signed a contract with Russia for additional seats on Soyuz spacecraft to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). The letter blamed congressional underfunding of the commercial crew program for the necessity to continue reliance on Russia. The agency also announced a new ISS program manager, Kirk Shireman, who will succeed Mike Suffredini.
Saying that the new contract with Russia costs $490 million, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden stressed, as he has in many other forums, that U.S. crew transportation systems could have been in place this year if Congress had provided the requested funding and urged full funding this year. In the letter, he writes: "I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry -- Boeing and SpaceX -- to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles" so launches can begin in 2017.
NASA is requesting $1.244 billion for commercial crew in FY2016. The House approved $1.000 billion in its version of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that passed in June. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $900 million in its version of the bill, which has not been debated by the full Senate yet. (See our fact sheet on NASA's FY2016 budget request for more information.)
President Obama announced the commercial crew program as part of the FY2011 budget request in February 2010. Each year, Congress has approved less than the request because of competing budget priorities, skepticism that the commercial crew program will succeed technically and/or financially, and disagreement over how many companies NASA needed to support during the various phases of development. The request versus congressional funding so far are:
NASA pays Russia for "seats" on Soyuz spacecraft, a term that encompasses other services such as training, and includes launch, landing, and emergency escape ("lifeboat") capabilities while in orbit. This contract is for 6 more seats on flights in 2018. That yields a price per seat of about $81 million, up from $76 million for 2017. One of Bolden's complaints is that the money should be going to American companies, not Russian. NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said in congressional testimony in February that the average price per seat for U.S. commercial crew systems will be $56 million.
Boeing and SpaceX were selected for the final phase of NASA's commercial crew program last year. The Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts cover completion of development and initial flights of Boeing's CST-100 capsule aboard Atlas V rockets and SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule aboard Falcon 9 rockets. The impact of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure while launching a robotic cargo version of Dragon to ISS is not yet known. SpaceX has not announced when the next Falcon 9 launch will take place or what it will carry. Falcon 9 is used today not only for cargo missions to the ISS for NASA, but launches of commercial satellites for a number of customers.
Meanwhile, Mike Suffredini, who has managed the ISS program for the past 10 years, is retiring from NASA to take a position in the private sector. NASA announced today that he will be succeeded by Kirk Shireman, who is currently Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center. Suffredini has been ISS program manager since 2005 and saw the ISS through recovery from the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy, completion of construction in 2011 (the same year the space shuttle program ended), and the first years of full operational capability. Shireman was Suffredini's deputy for eight of those years (2006-2013).
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