$71M: Russia Triples Price to Fly U.S. Astronauts to Space Station

August 2, 2013 - 10:11 AM

Space Station

Russian flight engineers perform maintenance on the Int'l. Space Station. (AP Photo/NASA)

(CNSNews.com) –  Russia will charge the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)  $71 million to transport just one American astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard its Soyuz spacecraft in 2016.

That’s more than triple the $22 million per seat the Russians charged in 2006, according to a July 8 audit report by NASA’s inspector general. (See NASA IG-13-019.pd)

NASA spent $60 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars to help build the ISS and that figure would increase to $100 billion if the cost of using space shuttles to assemble the ISS was factored in, the IG report noted.

NASA still contributes $3 billion annually to cover the space station’s operating costs, and signed an agreement to provide the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space an additional $15 million annually “to manage non-NASA research on the ISS.”

But NASA has little choice but to pay Russia's inflated ticket prices. Ever since August 2011, when the U.S. space agency mothballed its 30-year-old space shuttle program, NASA has had no way of getting American astronauts to the space station. The Russian Soyuz is now “the only vehicle capable of transporting crew to the ISS,” the IG report noted.

Space Shuttle Last Stop

Space shuttle Atlantis is retired on Nov. 2, 2012 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo)

Monopoly has its advantages. In 2006, the price tag for the one seat NASA purchased on the Soyuz was $22 million. Four years later, the Russians increased the cost to $25 million. It went up again - to $28 million - in the first half of 2011.

“During the second half of 2011, the price per seat jumped to $43 million. The price has continued to increase. For example, the price of purchased seats for launches in 2014 and 2015 are $55.6 million and $60 million, respectively,” the audit report noted.

“In April, NASA signed another deal with Russia valued at $424 million for six additional seats to carry NASA astronauts to the Station during 2016 through June 2017, and the price per seat has increased to $71 million” – more than triple what the Russians charged in 2006.

NASA’s attempts to “end its reliance on the Soyuz for crew transportation to the ISS” is not only due to concerns about the escalating costs, the IG noted. “Reliance on the Soyuz limits the amount of research conducted on the ISS because the Soyuz does not have the capacity to support the maximum number of crew members that can inhabit the Station.”

Because of the Soyuz’s three-person capacity, and the need to keep two Soyuz capsules at the ISS at all times in case the need for emergency evacuation arises, only six crew members can safely live aboard the ISS at any particular time. But this greatly limits the amount of time the space station crew is able to devote to scientific research, the main mission of the ISS.

“According to the ISS Program Office, a seventh crew member could potentially add about 33 hours per week to the current amount of crew time devoted to research – a 94 percent increase,” according to the report.

But CASIS was only able to enroll 50 paid members in fiscal year 2012, collecting “a total of $3,200 in membership fees.” And NASA’s attempts to enlist commercial partners through its 2010 Commercial Crew Program has had only limited results thus far.

Attracting private investment for the ISS is proving difficult, the IG noted, in part because “less costly ground-based research options may be available in some cases,” and “potential users may be reluctant to allocate funds towards research when the likelihood of profitable results is risky.”