The United States reemerged as a space power with human spaceflight capabilities in 2020 thanks to SpaceX, when it launched the first crewed rocket launch from American soil, after nearly a decade of NASA depending on Russia to launch crew to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX is currently the only U.S. company capable of launching astronauts safely to and from the ISS. SpaceX and competitor Boeing are part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program that aims to conduct frequent, rotational spaceflights to the orbiting outpost from American soil.
NASA purchased six crewed flights from Boeing and six from SpaceX, with duration of each mission being around 6-months. Initially, the agency intended for both companies to conduct alternate crewed missions to ISS, however, Boeing’s Starliner development is falling behind; It has not completed the necessary testing to certify its spacecraft is safe to carry humans. SpaceX has already completed three operational crewed flights: Crew-1, Crew-2, Crew-3, and will also launch Crew-4 next year.
On December 3, the agency announced it will modify SpaceX’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract to purchase additional crewed flights aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon due to Boeing Starliner development delays. The agency plans to “acquire up to three additional crew flights” to “maintain an uninterrupted U.S. capability for human access to the space station.”
The announcement comes after NASA publicly requested the U.S. aerospace industry to submit information if they wanted to launch astronauts to ISS. Ultimately, the agency determined that currently SpaceX is the only company capable of safely transporting astronauts to and from the orbiting laboratory. “After a thorough review of the near-term certified capabilities and responses from American industry, NASA’s assessment is that the SpaceX crew transportation system is the only one certified to meet NASA’s safety requirements to transport crew to the space station, and to maintain the agency’s obligation to its international partners in the needed timeframe,” agency representatives stated.
NASA plans to secure the spaceflights with SpaceX to maintain planned crewed flights to ISS going smoothly while Boeing continues to develop Starliner. “It’s critical we begin to secure additional flights to the space station now so we are ready as these missions are needed to maintain a U.S. presence on station,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator & Space Operations Mission Directorate Kathy Lueders, “Our U.S. human launch capability is essential to our continued safe operations in orbit and to building our low-Earth orbit economy,” she said.
NASA assured it still plans to alternate missions between SpaceX and Boeing. NASA and Boeing engineers are working side-by-side on the development of CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. Boeing has faced multiple issues that started in December 2019, when Starliner’s computer timer malfunctioned during its first demonstration mission (OFT-1) for NASA, causing it to fire its engines incorrectly and it failed to reach the proper orbit to dock to the Space Station. Boeing stated the craft did reach a stable orbit but it did not accomplish the correct altitude to be able to dock with the orbiting Station. Then the company delayed their second demonstration mission, Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2), that was scheduled for December 2020. This year, Boeing had everything ready to conduct the OFT-2 flight in August but the company’s Starliner faced another delay due to issues with the vehicle’s propulsion valves.
“NASA commends Boeing for its ongoing investigation of the oxidizer isolation valve issue that was discovered ahead of the planned uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to the International Space Station in August, prioritizing safety over schedule while working to solve this challenge,” said Phil McAlister, director, commercial spaceflight at NASA. “NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner’s next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation,” they stated in a press release this week. Another attempt to conduct the OFT-2 mission is planned for next year.
Featured Images Source: Boeing/NASA/SpaceX