NASA to pay Russia millions for launches

WASHINGTON — Despite ongoing sanctions, Russia is about to get a big infusion of cash from the U.S. government.

NASA recently renewed a contract that allows Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station.

The United States is, essentially, cutting Russia a $457.9 million check for its services — six seats on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, training and launch prep, landing and crew rescue and limited cargo delivery to and from the International Space Station. This contract also adds additional support at the Russian launch site.

NASA has announced it is cutting some contacts with Russia after the country annexed Crimea, including meetings and teleconferences.

The move came after President Barack Obama last month signed an executive order allowing restrictions on dealings with some of Russia’s largest sectors, including financial services, energy and defense. The United States is currently considering additional sanctions against Russia.

But some NASA initiatives just can’t be stopped, underscoring the reliance the United States has on Russia for its space program.

The most important is, essentially, the taxi service to the International Space Station.

Although the United States operates the International Space Station, it is dependent on Russia to get astronauts there. When the United States retired the space shuttle, it left NASA with no way to get astronauts to the space station. So it inked a contract with Russia to provide rides to the Space Station, which is 240 miles above Earth.

Steve Swanson was the most recent astronaut to hitch a ride with Russia, launching off to the International Space Station from a base in Kazakhstan last month. He will, eventually, have to get back to Earth. Russia charges about $71 million per seat on the Soyuz, which makes the price of even a first-class transatlantic airline seat seem like a pittance.

NASA is partnering with private companies including Space-X and Orbital Sciences to develop rockets that will be able to send astronauts to space from American soil. But because of budget battles in Congress, those won’t launch until at least 2017. The companies have made limited cargo deliveries to the Space Station.

Obama has asked for additional money toward the program that would help build equipment to launch Americans into space, but Congress has not fully funded the requests. But attitudes in Congress are changing as many realize just how much money NASA gives to Russia.

Last month NASA Administrator Charles Bolden scolded Congress, saying the lack of funding essentially shuttles money to Russia.

“The choice moving forward is between fully funding the President’s request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians,” Bolden wrote online last month. “It’s that simple.”

There’s no doubt NASA is using latest contract extension as leverage with Congress.

“NASA is hopeful Congress will approve the president’s budget request for next year so that we can launch our astronauts from U.S. soil and no longer be required to make additional purchases from the Russians,” said David Weaver, NASA’s associate administrator for communications.

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