NASA has recently awarded four more contracts each to SpaceX and Boeing to ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station in 2018. This brings the total number of missions with the private firms to six each – a movement away from the U.S. space agency’s dependence on buying seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Here’s a quick look at when NASA started relying on a foreign government to send its astronauts to the space station, which has often been met with concerns in light of political disputes existing between the two countries.

Ferried To Space By Russia

NASA’s space shuttle program came to a close in 2011, and since then it has had to rely on purchasing a spot inside the Soyuz spacecraft, which launches from Kazakhstan. This capsule has flown American astronauts to the space station and back on numerous occasions, including Scott Kelly’s historic return to Earth last March after spending 340 days aboard the ISS.

NASA currently maintains contracts with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to bring astronauts on six Soyuz journeys this year, which means $458 million in costs. It will shell out another $490 million for six more flights in 2018.

Recently, concerns on this arrangement have surfaced, particularly with political disagreements standing between the two countries. Russia, too, depends on its dealings with Kazakhstan for blasting Soyuz to space.

This deal with the Russian space agency – which translates to roughly $80 million for every seat on the rocket – may no longer continue beyond 2018 based on Roscosmos’ pronouncements, bringing into urgency the role of private providers.

Private Space Taxi Services

In line with its long-range mission to enhance crew size on the ISS, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program seeks to restart manned launches from U.S. soil in 2018. The Dragon and Starliner vehicles of partner spaceflight companies –SpaceX and Boeing – very well serve this purpose: unlike the Soyuz vehicles designed to carry up to three individuals at a time, they are able to transport a maximum of seven per flight.

For NASA, increasing the number of astronauts in space means upping the available research time on the orbiting space complex.

"Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers," said Phil McAlister, director for Commercial Spaceflight Development Division at NASA.

In November, SpaceX’s uncrewed flight test is anticipated, to be followed by Crew Dragon test in May next year. On the other hand, the crewed CST-100 Starliner test of Boeing will launch in August 2018.

The manned missions – taking off only after NASA approves the companies’ flight certification – will involve a lifeboat feature that will allow astronauts to return to the planet safely in an emergency situation.

NASA’s contracts with SpaceX and Boeing were inked in 2014, with two missions each as a start. Both companies will be launching their space taxis from the Florida Space Coast: SpaceX will likely choose the Kennedy Space Center, while Boeing may opt for the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

NASA is gearing up for a busy year ahead, with projects that include its unique Earth science probe which will study greenhouse gases and vegetation health from space. It continues to eye a Mars mission in the 2030s as a new president steps into the White House, and as more private partnerships are in the pipeline.

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