‘Space taxis’ to save NASA millions on future flights

Since retiring the space shuttles in 2011, the United States has depended on Russia's space agency, Roscosmos

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The U.S. space program should save more than $12 million a seat flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station on commercial space taxis rather than aboard Russian capsules, the NASA program manager said on Monday.

In September, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded contracts worth up to a combined $6.8 billion to Boeing and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to fly crew to the station, a $100 billion research laboratory about 418 km above Earth.

Since retiring the space shuttles in 2011, the United States has depended on Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, to ferry astronauts to the orbital outpost. The service costs more than $70 million per person.

NASA expects to pay an average of $58 million a seat when its astronauts begin flying on Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon capsules in 2017, Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, told reporters during a news conference in Houston and via conference call.

“I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017, hopefully,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

Both SpaceX and Boeing plan two test flights to the station, the first without a crew and the second with a combination of company test pilots and NASA astronauts aboard.

SpaceX is targeting its unmanned test flight in 2016 and its piloted flight in early 2017, said company president Gwynne Shotwell. Boeing’s test flights are targeted for April and July 2017, vice president and program manager John Elbon said.

For its manned test flight, Boeing plans to fly one as-yet-unidentified company astronaut and one NASA astronaut. SpaceX said it is still deciding on a test flight crew.

Though schedules show SpaceX being ready ahead of Boeing to fly operational missions, NASA currently expects Boeing to begin flight services first in December 2017, Lueders said.

(Editing by David Gregorio)

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