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Image: Soyuz craft
A Russian Soyuz craft approaches the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

NASA is considering a convoluted arrangement to reserve five more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules heading to and from the International Space Station, with the Boeing Co. as the middleman.

The plan to reserve more trips to orbit would give NASA additional breathing room as it waits for Boeing and SpaceX to complete the development of their commercial space taxis.

The first crewed test flights of those space taxis aren’t scheduled to occur until 2018. And in a procurement notice issued today, NASA acknowledged that they are “not expected to begin fully operational flights to the ISS until 2019.”

NASA has made a limited number of reservations on Soyuz craft in 2018, at a cost of more than $80 million per seat. But there’s not much of a margin to deal with further delays in the commercial crew schedule.

By a strange set of circumstances, Boeing could help fill the gap, even if its own CST-100 Starliner spacecraft isn’t yet ready to fly.

For months, Boeing and Russia’s prime contractor for Soyuz spacecraft, Energia, have been negotiating how to deal with Boeing’s legal claim against two Energia subsidiaries.

A federal court ruled last May that Boeing was owed more than $320 million, plus legal fees, to make up for unreimbursed expenses associated with a joint launch venture known as Sea Launch. In the procurement document, NASA says Energia gave Boeing the rights to five seats on future Soyuz craft as part of the deal to settle the dispute.

One of the seats is on a Soyuz due to launch to the space station this fall. Another would be open in the spring of 2018. Three more would be made available in the spring of 2019.

Russia had previously said it was temporarily reducing its presence on the space station as a cost-saving measure. Now it turns out to have a connection to the Energia-Boeing dispute as well.

NASA says it’s considering a contract with Boeing to take the seats in 2017 and 2018, and reserve the option for the seats in 2019 in case the commercial space taxis aren’t ready.

The option would “ensure uninterrupted access to the ISS while U.S. commercial providers establish that their vehicles have full operational capability, or provide for more crew time to maximize research,” NASA said.

How the crew would change

The traditional formula for space station crews generally provides for three Russian spacefliers, and three from NASA and its partner nations. That’s the case currently: Russia has Andrei Borisenko, Sergei Ryzhikov and Oleg Novitsky aboard; NASA has Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson; and the European Space Agency has French astronaut Thomas Pesquet.

That 3-to-3 balance would change to 2-to-4 if NASA bought Boeing’s seats for 2017 and 2018, which the space agency says would “maximize scientific utilization of the ISS to achieve the largest possible return on the investment made by the United States and its international partners.”

The 2019 seats would guarantee that NASA could keep sending astronauts to the space station even if the commercial taxi services aren’t in full swing by the end of 2018.

NASA said it’s not planning to do competitive bids for the space station trips because no other source is capable of providing what Boeing’s unique position. However, it’s giving other potential providers until Jan. 27 to speak up.

NASA hasn’t said how much it would pay Boeing for the Soyuz reservations. That price still has to be negotiated. But if Boeing is paid the Russians’ reservation rate, that’d work out to more than $400 million for five seats.

The Trump administration is due to take charge of NASA and the rest of the federal government’s executive branch on Friday. However, it’s not at all clear whether Donald Trump or his aides would step in. The president-elect could even conceivably salute Boeing for demonstrating “the art of the deal.”

Air Force One update

Coincidentally, Trump met with Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg today to discuss a different subject: the price tag for the next set of Air Force One planes.

“I think Mr. Trump is doing a great job of engaging with business,” Muilenburg said. “Together, we’re working through simplifying the requirements and streamlining the process and applying commercial best practices. That’s going to lead to substantial cost reductions.”

Muilenburg said he expected to reach a deal on Air Force One’s future progress “in the very near term.”

Here are additional perspectives on the NASA-Boeing-Soyuz deal from the Twitterverse:

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