Russia’s contract with NASA to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) will end in April 2019, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov told reporters on Friday. Under the current contract, American astronauts have had access to seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft in order to reach the ISS and return home according to RT.
Yury Borisov, who is responsible for overseeing military and space matters in the Russian cabinet, said that the landing of a Soyuz-MS spaceship in April next year "will finalize the fulfillment of our obligation under a contract with NASA."
The expiration will pile further pressure on NASA to restore its own capability to shuttle U.S. crew members back and forth to the orbiting lab. The space agency has contracting with Boeing and Musk's SpaceX to develop new vehicles to transport astronauts, but the work has been plagued by delays.
NASA has relied on Russia since retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 ended U.S.-controlled access to the space station. Congress and President Donald Trump’s administration have touted the commercial program’s importance to ending that reliance, especially as diplomatic relations between the nations have deteriorated.
The cost of the ISS ferry service has varied over the years: currently Russia charges NASA about $81 million per seat on the Soyuz to fly astronauts to and from the station, up from the cheapest price of $21.8 million in 2007 and 2008. NASA signed an agreement in early 2017 to acquire additional Soyuz seats into 2019, although no further contracts involving the Russian craft have been announced.
The discontinuation of the Space Shuttle program seemed like a minor inconvenience in 2011, when the US and Russia were on relatively good terms. Today however, as a result of the bitter political stand-off between the two nations, the fact that the US has to rely on Russia in some aspects of its space exploration is considered humiliating by some people in America.
However, Russia may continue carrying US astronauts to orbit if a new deal is struck, Sergey Krikalev, executive director of manned space programs at Roscosmos, told TASS. "This is a working issue. The current contract ends, but it doesn’t mean that we’ll stop delivering American astronauts on the ISS. There’ll be other contracts. No tough measures are implemented." Discussions on the next contract are already underway between Roscosmos and NASA, but "there have been no specific decisions yet," Krikalev added.
NASA officials declined to say whether the agency has discussed procuring additional Soyuz spots with Russian officials. "As part of its normal operations planning, NASA is continuing to assess multiple scenarios to ensure continued U.S. access to the International Space Station," NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said in an email.
According to Bloomberg, in September 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a combined $6.8 billion to revive the U.S.’s ability to fly to the station. SpaceX plans to fly Demo-2, its first test flight with a crew, in April 2019, while Boeing’s Crew Test Flight is now slated for mid-2019, according to a new schedule that NASA released Aug. 2.
Both dates are later than the companies had been targeting. The first Boeing and SpaceX test flights without a crew could occur later this year, according to NASA’s most recent flight schedule.
Late Senator John McCain was among the most vocal critics of the situation, in which the US pays Russia millions of dollars each year in return for space engines and rides to the ISS. Vice-President Mike Pence last week pledged that the US will “very soon” be able to take people into space without Russia’s help and will return to the moon by 2024.