NASA has told Congress its foot-dragging on space appropriations has forced the space agency to extend a deal with Russia to shuttle spacecrew to the International Space Station.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in an Aug. 5 letter to congressional leadership, said legislators’ under-funding of its Commercial Crew Program during the past several years has prompted it to extend a contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency for shuttling U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station beyond 2017.
The extension will cost American taxpayers an extra $490 million. Those tapped as the next U.S. contractors on such missions — SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif., and Boeing of Chicago — won’t be ready to begin manned transport missions to the multinational ISS until 2017.
The contract extension primarily addresses U.S. space station needs for 2018. The extension covers transport for six astronauts in 2018, with rescue and return services in 2019.
The bluntly worded letter comes one day after the U.S. Senate unanimously approved S 1297, the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which now must be reconciled with a less ISS-friendly House bill.
It was already clear Russia would have to continue to shuttle crew to the ISS for at least another two years. But the NASA letter effectively raises the heat on Congress as it deals with ISS funding proposals.
The Senate legislation, which the Commerce Committee approved May 20, would extend operational use of the International Space Station until 2024. It also would place a regulatory moratorium on commercial space activity through 2020 and generally ensure stability for U.S. commercial space activities.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas who is running for president. Its co-sponsors include various members of the Senate Commerce Committee, including ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
The Senate bill now must be reconciled with the House’s proposed Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act. The SPACE bill, passed by the House 284 to 133 on May 21, features some of the same elements of the Senate bill but doesn’t extend U.S. participation in the ISS beyond 2020.
Both ROSCOSMOS and NASA, backed by President Obama, have signaled support for continuing the ISS through 2024. Funding still must be pinned down by both nations, however.
In his letter to Congress, NASA’s Bolden urged quick bipartisan support for funding the ISS and related space efforts on a full and consistent basis, so the nation can resume ISS spacecrew shuttles and halt its dependence on Russia.
“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,” the NASA administrator wrote.
A resolution of differences between the House and Senate funding bills is unlikely before September. The House is on summer recess until Sept. 8, and the Senate goes into recess until the same date beginning Aug. 7.
“Today, the United States Senate carried President Reagan’s torch forward by passing the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act,” Cruz said after the Senate vote. “This bipartisan legislation makes a commitment to supporting the continued development of a strong commercial space sector and recognizes that Texas has a major stake in space exploration.”
Said Nelson: “This will help clear the way for the commercial space companies to grow and thrive on Florida’s Space Coast and across the nation. And that will help with our push to explore Mars while providing jobs and growing the economy closer to home.”