NASA Looks to Procure More Soyuz Seats Amid Commercial Crew Uncertainty

Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft docking at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Amid uncertainty about the Commercial Crew schedule, NASA has issued a pre-solitication procurement notice to secure additional rides with the Russians for its astronauts.

“NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation ‘Roscosmos’ for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crew member in the Spring of 2020,” the agency said in the Feb. 13 notice.

Boeing and SpaceX are set to conduct two flight tests apiece to the ISS of their Starliner and Crew Dragon vehicles, respectively. The current “planning dates” are:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): March 2, 2019
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): NET April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • SpaceX In-Flight Abort Test: June 2019
  • SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): July 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019

After the flight tests are concluded, the vehicles will need to be certified to carry NASA astronauts on commercial missions. That process is expected to take several months.

Crew Dragon for DM-1 mission with Falcon 9 booster. (Credit: SpaceX)

“Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development,” the procurement notice stated. “Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.”

Currently, the last NASA astronaut is expected to return to Earth in December. However, a recent Russian press report states that plan could be extended three months to April 2020.

NASA has been planning to make the second Boeing Starliner flight, now scheduled for no earlier than August, a long-term stay aboard the space station. That plan depends upon the flight tests going well.

“These two seats would allow for US crew presence on ISS through September 2020,” the notice stated. “Based on the current status of the US commercial program this date should allow overlap in capability and protect for continued ISS operation. Overlap with US commercial crew capability is required to allow smooth and safe transition to a new US capability.

“Even after US crew transportation completes its test program, history has shown that developing an operational cadence of flights is difficult,” the notice added. “Launch delays will occur. This overlap in crew transportation capability provides assurance of continuous safe operation and research activity on ISS.”

NASA astronauts have been riding aboard Soyuz vehicles exclusively since the agency retired the space shuttle in July 2011. The procurement of seats actually started five years earlier.

Credit: NASA OIG

The cost of Soyuz seats has risen from a low of $21.8 million in 2007 to about $81.1 million apiece in 2018. NASA spent about $3.37 billion on Soyuz rides during that period.

The pre-solicitation referenced a recommendation that the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel made in its recently published annual report.

Due to the potential for delays in the schedule for the first Commercial Crew Program (CCP) flights with crew, senior NASA leadership should work with the Administration and the Congress to guarantee continuing access to ISS for U.S. crew members until such time that U.S. capability to deliver crew to ISS is established,” ASAP said.

Due to the limitations of the three-seat Soyuz spacecraft, the space station’s maximum crew is six. Commercial crew would allow that number to be expanded to seven. The extra crew member could focus full-time on research.

The procurement notices is reproduced below.

PROCUREMENT OF CREW TRANSPORTATION AND RESCUE SERVICES FROM ROSCOSMOS
Solicitation Number: 80JSC019 ROSCOSMOS
Agency: National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Office: Johnson Space Center
Location: Mail Code: BG

Notice Type: Presolicitation
Synopsis:
Added: Feb 13, 2019 11:33 am

NASA has a requirement for crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS). These services include launch, return and rescue of U.S. or U.S. designated astronauts and associated services. The associated services include primary and ancillary services not limited to: Launch and return of U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) Crew members to the ISS for planned six-month missions, On-orbit rescue services for the duration of six-month missions and provision of emergency rescue services, Search and Rescue services and recovery at landing site, Theoretical and practical training of Astronauts for nominal, off nominal and sea survival activities for the safe operation of the ISS vehicle, Provision for access to NASA designated support personnel to the launch site including visa support, housing, logistics, security and clearance for facility access, Cargo services for storage, delivery to, and return, from the ISS including disposal of trash from the ISS for cargo associated with crew delivery and return, ascent control flight control operations, rendezvous and on-orbit docking services, on orbit consumables, life support systems and habitability services.

NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crew member in the Spring of 2020.

NASA has contracts with two U.S. commercial companies for crew transportation to the ISS. The Commercial Crew Contracts were initially signed in September 2014 with the first ISS crew rotations planned for December 2017.* Each provider has two test flights planned before the first ISS crew rotation flights; an uncrewed test flight and a short duration, minimum crew test flight. Further, each provider has an additional abort test planned. Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development. Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state.

This Soyuz seat procurement ensures uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of a delay in U.S. commercial crew launches, mitigating the significant risk to ISS safety and operations that the absence of U.S. crew members at any point in time would cause. Obtaining this Soyuz transportation provides flexibility and back-up capability without adding unnecessary schedule pressure to our US commercial crew providers. The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel has recommended that NASA should provide additional back-up capability in case US crew flights are delayed. This will also insure that NASA is meeting its own needs for crew transportation as well as its obligations to the International Partnership. Ten months from now, December 2019, there will no longer be a USOS presence on-board ISS unless action is taken. These two seats would allow for US crew presence on ISS through September 2020. Based on the current status of the US commercial program this date should allow overlap in capability and protect for continued ISS operation. Overlap with US commercial crew capability is required to allow smooth and safe transition to a new US capability. Even after US crew transportation completes its test program, history has shown that developing an operational cadence of flights is difficult. Launch delays will occur. This overlap in crew transportation capability provides assurance of continuous safe operation and research activity on ISS.

As a means to mitigate the aforementioned risks, NASA is issuing this synopsis in order to provide notice of the Agency’s requirements and to determine whether any other potential sources have the current capability to provide these crew transportation services in the required timeframes.

Interested organizations may submit their capabilities and qualifications to provide the crew transportation services described below. Such capabilities/qualifications will be evaluated solely for the purpose of determining whether or not to conduct this procurement on a competitive basis. The determination of whether or not to acquire these services without competition is solely within the discretion of the Government.

Submissions must be provided in writing to the identified point of contact not later than 4:30 p.m. local time on February 28, 2019. Oral communications are not acceptable in response to this notice. The Government does not intend to acquire the described services as a commercial item using FAR Part 12.

* The Post Certification Mission dates reflects the date at Authority to Proceed.