Lack of adequate state funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has forced America's premier space agency to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency, Roscosmos, to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
NASA administrator Charles Bolden has sent a letter to the US Congress informing members of the inadequacy of state funding for the agency's commercial crew programme over the past several years.
This contract modification is valued at about $490 million.
In a letter delivered to the leadership of the congressional committees that oversee NASA, Bolden has asked the administration to focus on efforts to support American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles.
Since the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2004, NASA has been committed to developing a follow-on, low-Earth orbit transportation system and limiting its reliance on others to transport US crew to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, the administrator wrote.
NASA, he said, had presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding. But, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the commercial crew programme to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned, he added.
This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as the crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS, he said.
''I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America's requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the US taxpayers will be approximately $490 million. I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.
''Across the United States, aerospace engineers are building a new generation of spacecraft and rockets that will define modern American spaceflight. The safe, reliable, and cost-effective solutions being developed here at home will allow for more astronauts to conduct research aboard the space station, enable new jobs, and ensure US leadership in spaceflight this century.
''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 programme in FY 2016,'' he wrote.
According to the NASA administrator, the agency's current commercial crew transportation capability contractors are on track to provide certified crew transportation systems in 2017.
However, reductions from the FY 2016 request for commercial crew proposed in the House and Senate FY 2016 commerce, justice, science, and related agencies appropriations bills would result in NASA running out of funds for both contractors during the spring / summer of FY 2016. In such a case, the existing fixed-price crew transport contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost, he wrote.
''Human spaceflight and exploration are important activities for this nation. The broad scope and bold goals of our human spaceflight programme set our nation apart from all others. Human spaceflight is both an exploration programme beyond low-Earth orbit comprised of the Space Launch System and the Orion crew vehicle as well as the ISS and the private sector crew transportation systems necessary to support our research and technology development on the ISS – research and development that is critical to the success of the exploration program. While I understand that funding is extremely limited, it is critical that all of NASA's human spaceflight efforts be supported.
''It is my sincere hope that we all agree that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on others to launch humans into space. I urge Congress to provide the funds requested for our commercial crew programme this year, so we can prevent this situation in the future.''