US 'forced' to hitch rides with Russia to space station, says NASA chief

NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, and has since relied on Moscow to get US astronauts to the International Space Station. 

Pavel Golovkin/AP
The Soyuz-FG booster rocket with the space capsule Soyuz TMA-14M, carrying Russian, American, and Japanese astronauts, is launched to the International Space Station from the Russian leased Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, in Kazakhstan, early Thursday, July 23, 2015.

To catch a ride to the International Space Station, American astronauts will still have to rely on Russia, and pony up rocket fare. While US-Russia relations are strained on Earth, NASA has extended its contract with the Russian space agency for transportation to space.

In a letter to Congress made public Wednesday, NASA chief Charles Bolden said that NASA is "forced" to extend its contract with the Russian space agency Roscosmos through 2017, at an estimated cost to US taxpayers of about $490 million. The extension was prompted by budget cuts that have delayed commercial alternatives with partners such as SpaceX and Boeing, which would make transportation from America possible, he wrote.

"Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress … has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned," Bolden wrote.

"This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews," he added. A seat on a Soyuz rocket costs more than $80 million, Reuters reports.

The deal extension comes at a time of troubled relations between the United States and Russia. The Obama administration has been consistently increasing sanctions against Russia in response to its actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. Meanwhile, Russia marked the one-year anniversary of its ban on Western foods, levied in response to those sanctions, by steamrolling and burning tons of contraband food in cities throughout Russia on Thursday, The Associated Press reports, a spectacle that was met with fierce public protest.

NASA retired its space shuttles in 2011, ushering in a new era of private commercial partnerships to develop transportation to get astronauts to and from the space station, which serves as a research laboratory that flies about 250 miles above Earth with American, Japanese, and Russian astronauts aboard. 

Bolden implored Congress to not cut funding for fiscal year 2016, a move that he said would threaten progress by private space companies Boeing and SpaceX toward building vehicles capable of carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS by 2017, which is NASA's stated goal for ending its dependence on the Russian government for transportation; he added, "only the lack of funding could hinder their progress".  

The NASA chief emphasized the importance of research on the space station, job creation stateside, and establishing US leadership in space exploration in this century, and said in closing, "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."

In the meantime, US-Russia collaboration on the space front will continue.

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