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Roscosmos has been sending American astronauts to the ISS aboard the Soyuz spacecraft since NASA ended its Space Shuttle Program in 2011. The extension to the contract states that Roscosmos will offer transportation services to NASA in 2016, with return-and-rescue services extending through June 2017.
Although this ensures that there is U.S. presence aboard the ISS, launching astronauts on American-made spacecraft from U.S. soil is high on the priority list, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a blog post on the agency's website. "While our Russian counterparts have been good partners, it is unacceptable that we don't currently have an American capability to launch our own astronauts," said Bolden.
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Since retiring the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has been trying to "privatize" the U.S. space program. In 2010, the Obama Administration created a public-private partnership plan, called the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), to help the U.S. develop spacecraft that can transport astronauts to the ISS and other low-Earth orbit destinations. NASA failed to receive the requested funding for the CCP from Congress this year, thus delaying U.S. launches until 2017. Bolden said the agency could see further delays if Congress doesn't support President Obama's fiscal year 2014 request of $821 million for the program.
"I'm confident that our ambitious plan for U.S. crew transportation, if fully funded, will allow U.S. commercial companies to launch our astronauts in just a few short years," said Bolden. "And I'm committed to gaining the support of the U.S. Congress to fully fund our investments in these companies and bring untold benefits to our economy." NASA has three American partners --cSpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada -- onboard for the CCP. In the meantime, the agency has been sending commercial cargo to the ISS.
On March 1, NASA's second SpaceX flight to resupply the ISS took off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The mission, involving the Space Exploration Technologies-built Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon cargo capsule, carried 1,268 pounds of supplies for the ISS crew and for experiments being conducted at the Earth-orbiting research facility. Dragon returned approximately 2,668 pounds of science samples and equipment to Earth on March 26.
It was the second of 12 missions for SpaceX, which has been contracted by NASA to resupply the ISS under a $1.6 billion Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. SpaceX and NASA launched their first commercial resupply mission in October 2011. NASA's goal is to have SpaceX's Dragon carry not only cargo, but also astronauts to low Earth orbit.