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NASA Enlists Private Space Industry to Break Reliance on Russian Rockets

Published: August 24, 2014 (Issue # 1825)



  • The Dragon V2 spacecraft is one of the prime contenders for the NASA contract.
    Photo: SpaceX

Within weeks, NASA is expected to award a multibillion-dollar contract for the development of spacecraft by private U.S. space companies, severing the agency's dependence on Russia's Soyuz rocket for transporting astronauts to the International Space Station, or ISS.

Since NASA retired its fleet of space shuttles in 2011, the Russian Soyuz rocket has been the only means of transporting American astronauts to ISS — a dependency that has come into sharp focus as tensions flare over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Under its current contract, NASA pays Russia $62.7 million a seat for transport to ISS, a $150 billion, 15 nation project largely co-managed by the U.S. and Russia. NASA recently signed a new contract for 2016-2017 at a price of $70 million a seat aboard the Soyuz.

In a drive to free NASA's budget and efforts from building its own vehicle to reach the space station, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration in 2009 began pushing the agency to seed the budding private space sector with funding to build its own vehicles.

Known as the Commercial Crew Program, the contest has been narrowed down to three contenders: SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing, who are now vying for funding to complete development of their vehicles.

Outsourcing to private companies may cut costs significantly. One of the leading contenders for the NASA contract, SpaceX, says that it can carry astronauts to space for $20 million a seat.

The program is now about to enter a critical phase. In late August or early September, NASA will distribute a new round of funding to complete the final stages of development for one or more of the vehicles. It is not yet known how much will be granted, or to whom, but there is a strong chance all three will receive funding to continue their work.

Upon completion of the commercial crew program, NASA will rent the winners' services rather than buying their vehicles, ostensibly opening an entirely new segment of the commercial space market in which foreign governments or private citizens and organizations could buy rides into space as well.

However, NASA officials told The St. Petersburg Times that they do not expect the program to spell an end to U.S. astronauts flying on Soyuz. One of the cornerstones of U.S.-Russia space partnership has been the sharing of space transportation capabilities, with both Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts flying aboard each others' spacecraft over the past two decades.





 


ALL ABOUT TOWN

Thursday, Dec. 25


Make this Christmas a slam-dunk and check out the Zenit St. Petersburg basketball club as they take on Nizhny Novgorod this evening at the Sibur Arena on Krestovsky Ostrov at 8 p.m. Tickets are still available on the club’s website for as little as 200 rubles ($3.30).


Spend your yuletide with Oleg Basilashvili this evening at the Concert Hall at 13/1 Arsenalnaya Naberezhnaya . The legendary film and stage actor will chat with fans, tell stories and share memories of an extensive career that has earned him acclaim throughout Russia.



Friday, Dec. 26


Celebrate Boxing Day by playing various tabletop games during the British Book Center’s Board Game Evening tonight at 5 p.m. Spread the Christmas cheer and goodwill by making other people regret their decision to come and try to match their intellectual prowess against yours.



Saturday, Dec. 27


Indulge cultural and material needs simultaneously during the free classical music concert at the Galeria shopping mall in the heart of the city. Starting at 7 p.m., shoppers and mallwalkers will be able to hear the sounds of Tchaikovsky and Strauss softly lilt over the constant buzz of people bustling from store to store, trying to get their shopping done before New Year.



Sunday, Dec. 28


Prepare for the holidays at the Russian Winter New Year’s Fair on Moskovskaya Ploshchad, which concludes today after starting on Dec. 22. Games and attractions as well as numerous performances will be on offer for those looking to get into the spirit while numerous vendors will help make sure you have something for everyone on your list.



Monday, Dec. 29


Learn how the Swedes observe Christmas, or Jul, in their land of ice and snow, during aSwedish Christmas celebration at the Lermontov Children’s Library this afternoon at 4 p.m. Activities explaining and demonstrating Sweden’s cultural traditions will be accompanied by traditional dishes and sweets.



Tuesday, Dec. 30


Today is the final day of the Christmas Market at the Europolis shopping center on Polyustrovsky prospekt. Indulge your holiday sweet tooth by tucking into some gingerbread men, or attend one of the master classes that will teach you about how to make beautiful, festive decorations for your tree using only your hands.



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