It’s been almost a decade since the United States has launched astronauts to space on American spacecraft, NASA is hoping both SpaceX and Boeing could change that soon. NASA has been funding development of SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft under their Commercial Crew Program to fly astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). For NASA, funding the development of American-made spacecraft, like SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner is very important because NASA has been highly dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get their astronauts to the space station, ever since the space shuttle program ended in 2011.
Boeing and SpaceX were awarded NASA Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts worth $4.3 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX, to fund the development of Starliner and Crew Dragon.
Throughout the years, Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has said his company aims to significantly reduce the cost of manufacturing and launching spacecraft, in order to make space travel more accessible one day. SpaceX has fulfilled their plan to reduce the cost of spaceflight. NASA’s deal to fly astronauts with Boeing is going to be much more expensive than SpaceX. The two companies aim to launch crewed missions to the ISS for the very first time next year, but NASA will pay a significantly higher price per astronaut when flying with Boeing compared to SpaceX. NASA’s Office of Inspector General said in a report that NASA will pay $90 million per seat to fly with Boeing, and only $55 million per seat to fly with SpaceX. So Boeing's spacecraft will about 60% more per seat than SpaceX even though both crafts have similar capabilities and can carry up to seven astronauts. To put those costs into perspective, NASA is currently paying approximately $86 million for each seat aboard Russia's three-person Soyuz spacecraft, which has been astronauts' only ride to and from the space station since NASA's space shuttle fleet was grounded.
The different funding NASA has provided to both companies and the pricing per mission does not reflect their capabilities at all. As of today, even though SpaceX received less funding and their operation cost is much lower, they have gained the upper hand. SpaceX's Crew Dragon already performed a successful flight demonstration to the ISS, it was a weeklong unmanned mission called Demo-1 that took place in March this year. Crew Dragon became the first spacecraft in history to dock autonomously to the station. In January 2020, SpaceX aims to conduct an In-Flight Abort (IFA) test, which will demonstrate Crew Dragon's ability to get astronauts out of danger in the event of a launch emergency. If the IFA test goes smoothly, SpaceX will be approved by NASA to conduct the Demo-2 mission, it will be the first manned test flight that will fly astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to and from the space station. A SpaceX spokesperson said:
"SpaceX and NASA have worked in close partnership, applying all that we have learned from extensive testing and analysis to improve our systems and ensure Crew Dragon is one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever built. There is nothing more important to our company than human spaceflight, and we look forward to safely flying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station starting early next year."
On the other hand, Boeing is falling a bit behind and still has more work to do. This month on December 20, Boeing attempted their first flight demonstration for NASA, launched Starliner to space towards the ISS. The new Starliner spacecraft took off atop an Atlas V rocket and headed on its debut flight to test its capabilities. About 30 minutes after liftoff, Starliner's computer timer malfunctioned causing it to fire its engines incorrectly and use up too much fuel, failing to reach the proper orbit. Boeing stated the craft did reach a stable orbit, but it did not accomplish the correct altitude to be able to dock with the space station and that the issue could be resolved if an astronaut was aboard to pilot the craft manually. Starliner was brought back to Earth, and landed in White Sands, New Mexico days later. After this failed attempt to dock to the space station, Boeing will have to repeat this launch again, sometime next year. Read more: Elon Musk shares encouragement to Boeing after Starliner’s orbit failure.
SpaceX has a higher probability to launch a manned mission first, before Boeing next year -Initiating a new era where NASA astronauts are launched from American soil after nearly a decade!
*Featured Image Source: NASA, SpaceX, Boeing. Edit by Tesmanian.