NASA has been using the Russian Soyuz vehicle for trips to the International Space Station since 2011, but it’s working to change that with its commercial crew program. Despite progress, a safety panel published a report last year pointing toward delays in the program, warning that NASA needed a contingency plan in order to avoid disruption to its ISS operations. The solution is Russian’s Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA aims to shed its Soyuz dependency with the commercial crew program. Both Boeing and SpaceX are working as contractors under the program, but repeated delays have put NASA in a tough spot.
In a report last summer, an advisory panel warned that NASA should work to ensure that access to the ISS would be maintained even in the face of additional delays.
The space agency is currently contracted to use the Soyuz aircraft through July 2019, but that will change soon. The space agency has published a procurement indicating that it will purchase additional seats on the Soyuz vehicle through 2019 and into 2020 to make sure it has uninterrupted access to the International Space Station.
The contract will cover two Soyuz seats, one for use this upcoming Fall and another for use in Spring 2020. NASA points toward past and anticipated future delays with its commercial crew contractors as the reason for its decision.
“The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats,” the space agency explained. “The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.”
NASA describes the contracted seats as a “back-up” that will provide the space agency with flexibility in regards to its ISS mission. By purchasing these seats, NASA says that it won’t have to put “unnecessary schedule pressure” on its US commercial crew providers while making sure that the space agency’s own transportation needs are covered.
If these seats are not purchased, NASA warns that the USOS presence on the ISS would end in December of this year. With this contract, assuming it is actually finalized, NASA would be guaranteed a presence on the ISS through September 2020.