American astronaut Jeff Williams returned from his record-breaking space mission in a Russian-built Soyuz, even as word spread that U.S. commercial crew shuttles won’t start until late 2018 at the earliest.
“Given delays in the Commercial Crew Program, NASA has extended its contract with (Russian space agency) Roscosmos for astronaut transportation through 2018 at an additional cost of $490 million or $82 million a seat for six more seats,” the report noted. “If the program experiences additional delays, NASA may need to buy additional seats from Russia to ensure a continued U.S. presence on the ISS.”
The recent loss of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its satellite payload on a test launch pad certainly won’t help. The investigation into an explosion eight minutes prior to a scheduled static test-fire is expected to take several weeks or even months, crimping not just SpaceX’s flight manifest but also the momentum of a commercial spaceflight industry still in the development stage.
SpaceX and Boeing hold NASA contracts to begin astronaut shuttles eventually in a move to halt a long reliance on Russia for such ISS missions.
Meantime, NASA astronaut and Expedition 48 Commander Williams and Russian crew mates Alexey Ovchinin and Oleg Skripochka landed in their Soyuz TMA-20M at 9:13 p.m. EDT Sept. 6 in Kazakhstan, or 7:13 a.m. Sept. 7 local time.
Williams spent a record 534 days in space during four missions. Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka spent a total 879 days in space during five missions.
“No other U.S. astronaut has Jeff’s time and experience aboard the International Space Station,” said Kirk Shireman,” ISS program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “We’re incredibly proud of what Jeff has accomplished off the Earth for the Earth.”
Williams’ first flight came in 2000, when the station was still under construction. Most recently, he helped install a new international docking adapter on the orbiting space station to help make ISS cargo deliveries easier in the future.
As for that probe by SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company has begun “the careful and deliberate process of understanding the causes and fixes,” company officials said a day after the Sept. 1 incident.
The Federal Aviation Administration will oversee the investigation into the explosion at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, with assistance from NASA and the Air Force.
The destroyed satellite’s owner, Israel-based Space Communication, has said it will seek $50 million in damages from SpaceX or alternately a free future satellite launch.