Delays from Boeing and SpaceX have left NASA nowhere else to turn but Russia to launch its astronauts up to the space station.
NASA, in dealing with Russia's monopoly on human spaceflight, is hoping Boeing can help — that is, by buying tickets the company owns for rides aboard Russian rockets.
When NASA retired its last space shuttle in July 2011, it expected commercial carriers like SpaceX and Boeing to launch its astronauts into space by 2015.
But both companies hit snags with the development of their rockets and spaceships, causing the first planned launches to slip to 2018, according to a September 2016 audit by NASA's Office of Inspector General (OIG).
This left NASA with one option for getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) for the next 3 years: a Russian spacecraft called the Soyuz.
NASA is no stranger to buying Soyuz seats — it has done so for more than a decade — but Russia has taken full advantage of its temporary monopoly to charge ever-more-exorbitant sums for them. And now the space agency may need more than it originally expected.
As Eric Berger reported Wednesday at Ars Technica, NASA issued a new solicitation on January 17 to buy two more Soyuz seats from Boeing, plus "an option to acquire crew transportation from Boeing for three crewmembers on the Soyuz in 2019." In other words: NASA may end up buying five tickets aboard the Soyuz from Boeing.
If that sounds a little convoluted, particularly since Boeing's delays helped put NASA in this pickle in the first place, welcome to the current state of human spaceflight industry.
As Berger notes at Ars Technica, RSC Energia — the Russian entity that makes and launches Soyuz rockets and spacecraft — recently settled a $320 million lawsuit with Boeing. Part of Boeing's settlement package includes five Soyuz seats and, according to NASA's recent solicitation, one is scheduled for 2017, another for 2018, and three for 2019.
What might NASA pay Boeing for each of its Soyuz tickets?
A NASA representative declined to provide Business Insider with an estimate, but noted "prices will be finalized during contract negotiations" and that the space agency "will ensure it receives a fair and reasonable price for the transportation services from Boeing before a contract is awarded."
Representatives from Boeing also wouldn't give specific numbers, but told Business Insider in an email that "the pricing is attractive" and that "we would not charge NASA more than what they would pay Roscosmos [Russia's space agency] if they were purchasing these seats directly."
If what Roscosmos charges is any guide, however, Boeing's Soyuz seats could still cost NASA dearly.
When NASA still had the space shuttle in 2008, Roscosmos charged it as little as $21.8 million per Soyuz seat. By 2018, however, it intends to charge NASA $81 million per seat — an increase of 372% over 10 years:
That's according to NASA OIG's September 2016 audit data.
The chart below, also based on the report, 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 for Soyuz seats.
The total cost over 12 years is more than $3.36 billion — and that's not including the possible purchase of Boeing's three Soyuz seats for 2019.
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 Sept. 2016 audit made 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."
Indeed, that looks to be the way things are headed now.
This article was updated to include new information provided after its original publication.