NASA is in quite a financial pickle with the Russians.
When the agency retired its space shuttle program in 2011, it was banking on commercial carriers — ultimately SpaceX and Boeing— to design, build, and test proven systems to launch its astronauts into space by 2015.
But those plans have been waylaid by 3 years, according to a buck-stopping audit by NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.
This leaves the agency with one option for sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) 220 miles above Earth: a Russian spacecraft called the Soyuz.
And Russia is taking full advantage of its temporary monopoly.
Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, used to charge NASA as little as $21.8 million per seat in 2008 (when the space shuttle was still around).
By 2018, however, it intends to charge NASA $81 million per seat by 2018 — a cost increase of 372% over 10 years:
The latest NASA OIG audit — coincidentally released the morning that SpaceX's uncrewed Falcon 9 rocket exploded on a launch pad during a routine test (no one was harmed, but Facebook's first satellite was destroyed) — follows up on a report it released in November 2013.
The new audit finds that the delays by SpaceX and Boeing is going to cost NASA dearly in payments to Roscosmos.
"Had the Agency met its original goal of securing commercial crew transportation by calendar year 2015, NASA could have avoided paying Russia close to $1 billion for Soyuz seats in 2017 and 2018, even factoring in the purchase of some seats in 2016 to cover the expected transition period," the OIG report states.
The chart below factors in the price of a seat and the number of astronauts that NASA plans to launch (about six per year), to show how much NASA has paid Russia and could end up paying. The total cost over 12 years is more than $3.36 billion.
Assuming NASA's budget remains roughly $18.5 billion a year, that means about 3% of the agency's funding could be diverted to Russia in 2018:
A presentation given by a NASA official in May 2016 estimates the cost of each seat aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will be $58 million.
The audit makes clear that any other hiccups in the NASA's commercial crew program, which could earn Boeing and SpaceX up to $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion (respectively) for their services, will be costly.
"Given the delays in initiating a U.S. capacity to transport crew to the ISS, NASA has extended its contract with the Russian Space Agency for astronaut transportation through 2018 at an additional cost of $490 million," the report stated. "If the Commercial Crew Program experiences additional delays, NASA may need to buy additional seats from Russia to ensure a continued U.S. presence on the ISS."
A response to the OIG findings in the report, penned by William Gerstenmaier — NASA's associate administrator for human exploration — agreed with the report's overall findings. Yet Gerstenmaier emphasized the importance of making sure commercial spacecraft are safe to fly.
"Excessive focus on timeliness and schedule can result in reducing the overall safety of the system," Gerstenmaier wrote. "Timeliness must not be over stressed[.]"
Business Insider contacted Boeing and SpaceX about the new OIG report. Although SpaceX did not immediately respond, Boeing issued the following statement to Business Insider:
"We continue to work toward achieving certification and providing safe crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station with the first launch (orbital flight test) expected in 2017. As in any development program, issues can stress the schedule and we are working shoulder-to-shoulder with NASA to overcome them. Boeing has been a partner with NASA on the Starliner system since 2010 and we've made significant progress on the maturity of our design."
We also asked representatives at SpaceX if the company's Sept. 1 Falcon 9 explosion could affect the company's rocket launch schedule and human spaceflight plans, and they told us by email:
"[O]ur number one priority is to safely and reliably return to flight for our customers, as well as to take all the necessary steps to ensure the highest possible levels of safety for future crewed missions with the Falcon 9. We will carefully and thoroughly investigate and address this issue."
A NASA spokesperson told Business Insider by email (our emphasis added in bold):
"NASA remains confident in our commercial partners and in the goals of the Commercial Crew Program to take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. It is too early to know whether Thursday's incident will impact their development schedules. Spacecraft and launch vehicles designed for the Commercial Crew Program must meet NASA's stringent safety criteria before being certified to launch crews into space. Successfully meeting those requirements has always taken precedence over schedule."
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