GOP-backed legislation pending in Congress would thwart NASA’s push to end U.S. dependence on the Kremlin to send astronauts to the International Space Station, the agency is warning.
For years, NASA has relied on Russia to send American astronauts to the station, but the space agency is developing a plan to wean the United States off of that arrangement.
The plan provides for two companies — Boeing and SpaceX — to create vehicles to send Americans to the space station by the end of 2017.
“By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space and continue to invest hundreds of
millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in reference to the Senate legislation.
Between late 2011 and early 2015 alone, the U.S. paid the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roscosmos, $1.2 billion for the trips to the International Space Station, which is located roughly 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The two spending measures fail to provide the $1.24 billion requested by the Obama administration for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Instead, the House version allocates nearly $250 million less, and the Senate’s contains more than $300 million less.
Spending ceilings, known as sequestration, are partially to blame.
“We’re in a situation where our resources are constrained,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), an appropriator who oversaw the development of the House bill, told The Hill. “Our hard-earned tax dollars are very precious and very scarce, and we’ll find every available dollar we can in conference to help do more for the space program.”
In September, NASA awarded multibillion-dollar contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to create the commercial vehicles for American astronauts. But to comply with those agreements, NASA argues it needs the full funding requested from Congress to divvy out payments to the companies at different points in the next few years.
NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said the agency cannot predict how far back the deadline could be pushed, but some Senate Democrats predict the insufficient funding would cause the U.S to continue its dependence on Russia for at least four more years.
“If those funding cuts the committee has done are sustained, it will delay us from putting Americans on American rockets going to and from the space station until, instead of 2017, very likely 2019,” Sen. Bill NelsonBill NelsonLive coverage: Senators grill Trump's Treasury pick Trump's Commerce pick admits to unknowingly hiring undocumented worker Senate Democrats brace for Trump era MORE (D-Fla.), who has spent time in space, said last week on the Senate floor.
“It is not in the interests of U.S. public policy that we would stay tied to Vladimir Putin in order to get to and from our own space station with astronauts,” he added.
After the Columbia disaster in 2003, the Russians helped shuttle Americans to the space station for a while. And since July 2011, the Russians have transported NASA astronauts to space exclusively.
It’s the only ride up and has required a negotiated contract between the space agencies each year.
The last one cost the U.S. nearly $460 million — a roughly 8 percent increase over the previous contract — or about $76 million per American astronaut for a full year.
It covers the cost for six American astronauts to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft and other expenses such as training, search and rescue services, and rehabilitation and medical exams after the flight. Only three people fit inside the vehicle at a time.
NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren is scheduled to travel to the Kazakhstan-based launch site, the Baikonur Cosmodrome, for the next mission in July.
Scott Kelly, brother-in-law of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), traveled to the space station with a Russian cosmonaut in March for a one-year mission to conduct research that NASA hopes will highlight medical, psychological and biomedical challenges faced by astronauts during a longer spaceflight.
Back on earth, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are outraged at the partnership with Russia, whose involvement in the Ukraine crisis has provoked Western sanctions.
As the crisis worsened last year, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin threatened in a tweet to ban U.S. astronauts from Russian transports to space and joked that the U.S. should use a trampoline instead.
NASA has brushed off these threats.
Lawmakers might be concerned about the arrangement with Russia for political reasons, but NASA wants to end it for other reasons: to save money, to have a more convenient route to space and to have the capability to get there.
“The Soyuz has been fine, and it’s proven to be a reliable vehicle, but if something were to happen with Soyuz, that is currently the only possible way astronauts to and from the space shuttle,” Schierholz said.
Once the commercial aircraft are ready to go, NASA expects it would be able to send four astronauts to space for each mission. Rather than paying Russia $76 million per astronaut, it would save taxpayers nearly $20 million for a total of $58 million per astronaut on the vehicles made by Boeing and SpaceX.
But the U.S. could be forced to keep paying Russia for a while.
Spending limits are going to return in full force in October and are tying appropriators’ hands. Democrats and the White House are ramping up pressure on Republicans to negotiate a deal to ease those caps and thereby increase funding levels.
At a recent markup, Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara MikulskiThe Hill's 12:30 Report Senate swears in new members Van Hollen lands seat on Banking Committee MORE (D-Md.) attempted to fulfill NASA’s $1.24 billion budget request by offering an amendment that included $300 million more for the spacecraft program.
“I think we should be buying American flights to the International Space Station, but the base bill doesn’t have sufficient funding to keep commercial crew on schedule for U.S. space flight by 2017,” she said.
The amendment failed on a party-line vote.
Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), an appropriator, told The Hill that Republicans are engaging in a major contradiction by not agreeing to increased funding levels.
“We have this issue with the Russian government,” Serrano said. “We have this fear, anger, hate, dislike for them, and yet we’re not willing to be on par with them.”