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Soyuz spacecraft near space station
An upgraded Soyuz spacecraft approaches the International Space Station for docking. (Credit: NASA TV)

NASA has agreed to purchase at least two trips to and from the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft, from an unlikely ticket-seller: the Boeing Co.

The arrangement follows through on a convoluted plan laid out back in January, and provides a cushion for the space agency in case Boeing and SpaceX can’t provide space taxis for NASA’s use by 2019.

Ever since the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011, NASA has been buying trips from the Russians at escalating prices. The latest purchase, for seats on Soyuz craft to be launched in 2018, amounted to $82 million per seat.

The per-seat price for the Boeing buy will be $74.7 million.

Boeing picked up the rights to the additional Soyuz seats as part of the settlement for a $320 million-plus debt owed by Russia’s Energia space company. Those debts were incurred while Energia subsidiaries were working with Boeing on the Sea Launch joint venture. (Boeing is no longer part of that venture.)

Buying two rides from Boeing will let NASA beef up its representation on the space station in the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018. NASA also has the option to purchase three more rides from Boeing in 2019 if SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner space taxis aren’t ready to fly astronauts by then.

The current schedule calls for both companies to start crewed flights in 2018, but in a report issued this month, the Government Accountability Office said 2019 was a more likely start date due to the technical challenges the companies are encountering.

NASA announced that it was going through with the Boeing buy on Feb. 21.

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