SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell receives an American flag from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in 2019. / Featured Image Source: NASA
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program funded private spacecraft development to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States. Ever since the last Space Shuttle was grounded in 2011, the agency has not performed crewed flights to space. NASA has been highly dependent on booking Russian launch services to maintain a U.S. presence at the International Space Station (ISS). One of the companies that earned a contract under the Commercial Crew Program is SpaceX. The agency awarded SpaceX about $3.1 billion to develop Crew Dragon, a spacecraft capable of carrying crew and cargo to ISS. During a virtual press conference on Friday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters:
“The investments that we have made into SpaceX and the investment SpaceX has made in itself have really resulted in I think something that is going to be very beneficial, not just for human space exploration, but beneficial for the economy.”
Launching astronauts aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft costs $86 million per seat. In total, 38 Americans have flown on 35 launches -that’s an overall cost of over $3 billion. A seat aboard Dragon is cheaper, $55 million. "Commercial Crew is going to demonstrate cost savings if you compare it to the Space Shuttle," he said, "...We're very pleased with the level of investment that we've made and what we're getting for that investment."
"We need to have the capability of accessing space, not just for NASA, but for all of humanity."
-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine
In 2019 Crew Dragon conducted the first uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, which demonstrated the spacecraft’s advanced technology. The craft features the capability to operate autonomously, even dock itself to the orbiting laboratory. The craft can carry up to seven passengers and over 4,000 pounds of cargo to conduct scientific experiments at the station’s laboratory. SpaceX is now preparing to launch its first crewed flight to the space station, the mission is known as Demo-2. It will be the United States first manned flight launched from American soil in roughly a decade. NASA Astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley will conduct the Demo-2 mission, which aims to demonstrate Dragon can operate reliably and safely ferry astronauts to ISS.
During the conference, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell was asked how much did the company invest in Dragon's development, she said - “SpaceX invests heavily in our products but candidly I can't tell you what the investment has been in Dragon 2. Not because I don't want to. I don't know what the number is.” SpaceX’s ultimate mission is to fly humans back to the moon and colonize Mars, so, taking astronauts to ISS will pave the way. Shotwell stated:
“We have worked with NASA since 2006, and all that work is culminating in this historic event that we have up and coming in the next few weeks. My heart is up to here [throat] and I think it is going to stay there until we get Bob and Doug safely back from the International Space Station.”
SpaceX’s first flight with astronauts aboard is scheduled for May 27th at 4:32 p.m. Eastern Time. A Falcon 9 rocket will lift off from Launch Pad 39A at the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida, with Behnken and Hurley atop, inside the Dragon spacecraft.