Three years ago, I reported on how NASA had signed a contract to pay Russia's Federal Space Agency, aka "Roscosmos," $70.7 million a head to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This revelation sparked a lot of outrage on our comments page -- and no wonder.
According to private space pioneer Elon Musk, it only costs about $200,000 in fuel to send a rocket into space. Given that each Soyuz rocket Russia sends up carries three astronauts, that works out to less than $70,000 in fuel cost per astronaut. Yet Russia is charging us more than $70 million per astronaut flight.
Even counting the cost of the rocket itself, that seems a bit excessive -- and it gets worse.
Prices are subject to change...
The NASA contract I wrote about back in 2013, valued at $424 million in total, expires this year. And now we've learned that NASA has asked Congress to allocate funding for another six astronauts to travel to ISS through 2017. We also learn that Roscosmos has raised the price per seat to get them there.
The new price of $490 million will work out to $81.7 million per astronaut.
We'll pay the new price, of course, because in the absence of a Space Shuttle program, or any U.S. rocketships certified to carry astronauts into orbit, we really have no choice. Meanwhile, ISS is up there. It cost us more than $100 billion to build it. Obviously, we're going to pay however many millions of dollars are necessary to keep it populated and operating -- but we don't have to like it.
And we don't have to keep overpaying Roscosmos's extortionate taxi fare indefinitely.
The end of the "seller's market"
If you ask me, as word of the 17% price hike in the cost of "astronaut tickets" filters out, it's only going to give momentum to America's efforts to develop new rocket engines, and new spaceships, capable of manned spaceflight.
Already, Boeing (NYSE:BA) and SpaceX have won contracts to build new space capsules, capable of carrying not just cargo, but also astronauts, into orbit. At the same time, Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) is working with Blue Origin to develop a new line of American-built rocket engines capable of lifting these spaceships into orbit. (Together, Boeing and Lockheed Martin form the United Launch Alliance, which is responsible for most NASA space launches.) If the choice comes down to paying ever-increasing fees to Russia to carry our astronauts into orbit or paying Boeing and Lockheed a bit more to develop our own engines, rockets, and spacecraft to accomplish the same mission -- well, that's not a hard choice to make.
Five years after retiring the Space Shuttle, it's time to put Americans back in space under our own propulsion.