U.S. space agency NASA said on Friday it was considering buying two additional astronaut seats aboard a Russian rocket as a contingency plan against further delays in the launch systems being developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, Reuters reported.
According to the agency, the possible purchase “provides flexibility and back-up capability” as the two private companies build rocket-and-capsule launch systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil for the first time since NASA’s Space Shuttle program was shut down in 2011.
For the past eight years, the U.S. space agency has had to rely on Russia’s Roscosmos program to ferry astronauts to the orbital space station at a cost of roughly $80 million per seat, NASA has said.
After 2019 there are no seats available on the spacecraft for U.S. crew, and a NASA advisory panel recommended on Friday that the U.S. space program develop a contingency plan to guarantee access to the station in case technical problems delay Boeing and SpaceX any further.
A NASA spokesman on Friday characterized a solicitation request NASA filed on Wednesday as a contingency plan. NASA said it could buy a seat for one astronaut in the fall and another seat in the spring of 2020.
“The absence of U.S. crew members at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” NASA wrote in its solicitation on Wednesday.
NASA awarded $6.8 billion to SpaceX, founded by Tesla, Inc. CEO Elon Musk and aerospace giant Boeing to develop separate launch systems to fly astronauts to space, but both companies have faced technical challenges and delays.