NASA informed lawmakers on Wednesday that because Congress has failed to fully fund its Commercial Crew Program for the last five years, it is signing a $490 million contract extension with Russia to send Americans to space.
The new contract, running through 2019, means that NASA will continue to depend on Russia to get its astronauts to space even as tensions between Washington and Moscow escalate.
It will also make the U.S. susceptible to threats from Russia, which in the past has suggested it could stop taking U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. The U.S. has relied on Russia since retiring its space shuttle program.
In a letter to a key House appropriator on Wednesday, NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. also warned that the space program is in danger of missing a 2017 deadline to send U.S. astronauts to space on vehicles created by Boeing and SpaceX.
To meet that deadline, he wrote that Congress needs to meet President Obama’s $1.24 billion budget request for the program.
“The fastest path to bringing these new systems online, launching from America, and ending our sole reliance on Russia is fully funding NASA's Commercial Crew Program in FY 2016,” Bolden wrote in a letter to Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who oversees NASA funding in the House.
For the next fiscal year, House Republicans have proposed allocating nearly $250 million less than the request, while Senate Republicans would offer $300 million less.
If Congress doesn’t increase the allocation, Boeing and SpaceX likely will receive orders to immediately suspend all operations either next spring or summer, Bolden said.
And if those orders are issued, Bolden said the existing contracts “may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost.”
The new contract extension is required because Congress has not fully funded the administration’s budget requests since 2010.
For fiscal year 2011, for example, Obama asked Congress for $500 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Congress only gave it $321 million. The next year, Obama asked for $850 million and Congress only allocated $400 million.
Due to those low funding levels for five consecutive years, NASA had to ask Congress for more than $1 billion for next year.
A spokeswoman for NASA said if Obama’s request is fully funded, and if NASA can fully pay its contracts, the U.S. commercial vehicles could still be ready by the 2017 date.
“At this point, because of the lack of funding, our commercial partners will likely not be ready by 2017,” the spokeswoman said.
Republicans in both chambers have blamed tight spending ceilings enforce by a 2011 budget deal for the problems. Democrats and the White House want to raise those ceilings for a variety of programs. Some Republicans are against raising any of the ceilings, while others in the GOP want to just raise the ceilings for certain programs, such as defense spending.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellMcConnell breaks with Trump on NATO McConnell: Senate could vote on 3 Trump nominees Friday Dems engage in friendly debate for DNC chair MORE (R-Ky.) on Tuesday repeated his promise to reporters that he would not allow any more government shutdowns and that Republicans would negotiate with Democrats over spending levels “at some point."