NASA announced it purchased additional SpaceX Crew Dragon flights to launch astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) through 2030 as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities contract. The Commercial Crew Program aims to launch astronauts from American soil to the ISS approximately every 6 months until the orbiting laboratory is retired sometime in 2030. NASA plans to conduct rotational crew flights using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, however, Boeing is still working to certify its spacecraft is safe to transport humans. SpaceX already performed four operational crewed flights for NASA and demonstrated the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon is reliable to launch astronauts to the ISS.
The agency purchased five more SpaceX flights to ensure the U.S. has human spaceflight capabilities in the next ten years. “The additional crew flights will allow NASA to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. capability for human access to the space station with two unique commercial crew industry partners,” the agency stated in a press release, “In December 2021, NASA announced the extension of the International Space Station to 2030. With this extension, there is a need for additional crew rotation missions to sustain a safe and sustainable flight cadence throughout the remainder of the space station’s planned operations.”
NASA issued a request for information from American industry in October 2021 seeking space transportation services. "After a thorough review of the long-term capabilities and responses from American industry, NASA’s assessment is that the SpaceX crew transportation system is the only one currently certified to maintain crewed flight to the space station while helping to ensure redundant and backup capabilities through 2030," the agency said. In total, NASA purchased 14 crewed missions aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon and only 6 to fly astronauts on Boeing’s Starliner to the ISS. Out of 14, SpaceX already performed four missions that are part of NASA’s first Commercial Crew Contract with SpaceX to conduct a total of six missions. In February 2022, NASA awarded SpaceX three additional crewed missions due to Boeing Starliner development delays. This week’s announcement adds five more missions to the United States' ISS crew launch itinerary that will be launched by SpaceX within the next decade.
Boeing fell behind on Starliner development due to technical issues on the first demonstration test flight. The company performed the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to demonstrate Starliner capabilities on May 19, after multiple delays. “Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 went very well and we hope to be able to certify the Starliner system in the near future. However, we will need additional missions from SpaceX to implement our strategy of having each commercial provider flying alternating missions once per year,” said Phil McAllister, director, commercial space at NASA. “Our goal has always been to have multiple providers for crewed transportation to the space station. SpaceX has been reliably flying two NASA crewed missions per year, and now we must backfill those flights to help safely meet the agency’s long-term needs.”
“The recent success of Boeing’s uncrewed flight test is helping to solidify NASA’s long-term goals,” said Steve Stich, manager, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It’s critical we complete Starliner’s development without undue schedule pressure while working to position both Boeing and SpaceX for sustainable operations in the years ahead.”
Featured Image Source: NASA captured by European Space Agency Astronaut Thomas Pesquet