NASA will continue to rely on Russia for astronaut deployment to the ISS

As NASA’s effort to send American astronauts from U.S. soil continues to be trifled with an onset of delays from its commercial partners, the space agency is considering to continue its partnership with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to assure that there’s a continued American presence aboard the ISS.

Tentatively, NASA expects to buy at least one more Soyuz seat from Russia to provide assured access to the International Space Station. Regularly, Soyuz is the rocket Roscosmos use to send cosmonauts (Russian astronauts) to the ISS, as well as others such as those from NASA.

The plan is motivated by the apparent delays that SpaceX and Boeing are facing concerning a contract they have with NASA on developing the next-generation spacecraft that would finally launch American astronauts from U.S. soil ever since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.

Currently, both SpaceX and Boeing are in a contract under the Commercial Crew Program, but delays in development and rigorous testing have shown uncertain outcomes in NASA’s original plans.

In a media briefing on October 10, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said NASA was in discussions with Roscosmos about ensuring NASA astronauts can remain on the station beyond the fall of 2020.

“We need to make sure that we do not have a day where don’t have American astronauts on the International Space Station, so we will be continuing to work with Roscosmos, which is the space agency of Russia, to ensure that we do have American astronauts on the International Space Station as an insurance policy,” he said.

In another talk during the ISPCS, Ken Bowersox, acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, said discussions were underway within the government about additional Soyuz seat purchases.

“We need to start earlier, so we’re discussing that with folks inside the government in the U.S. and with our Russian partners, but we don’t have any agreements that are concluded yet,” he said. “It is likely that we’ll want to try and set up arrangements for at least one more seat on the Soyuz in the fall of 2020 to spring of 2021.”

The news comes after Bridenstine visited SpaceX’s facilities in Hawthorne, California, where the company’s Crew Dragon — SpaceX’s bid to send American astronauts to space. Earlier, Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and founder, and Bridenstine was involved in an online feud regarding the slow development.

By the end of the site visit, NASA says that doesn’t expect to need any more Soyuz seats but is instead an assurance call. At that briefing at SpaceX, Bridenstine said that the company’s Crew Dragon vehicle could be ready for a crewed test flight, known as Demo-2, as soon as the first quarter of 2020. The same day, NASA and Boeing officials at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here said they expected Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to be ready for a crewed test flight in the same time frame.

“If everything goes according to plan, we may not need additional Soyuz seats,” Bridenstine said. “But here’s something else we know: usually things don’t go according to plan when it comes to these new development capabilities.”

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