The NASA Commercial Crew Program is a groundbreaking initiative that restored America's ability to launch astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station (ISS). For nearly a decade, NASA was dependent on Russia’s Soyuz to transport astronauts to and from the ISS since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. NASA aims to foster the development of safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew transportation systems by partnering with American private companies. Under the Commercial Crew Program, the agency partnered with SpaceX and Boeing. The United States reemerged as a space power when SpaceX returned human spaceflight capabilities to NASA in May 2020, as a pair of veteran astronauts lifted off on American-made Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Since, SpaceX has launched a total of 38 astronauts during ten crewed missions, seven of those for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Boeing has not yet launched astronauts on its Starliner spacecraft; it has experienced multiple issues since its uncrewed test flight in 2019. On May 26, NASA announced that it made the decision to delay the highly anticipated first crewed mission of Boeing's Starliner. This delay comes as a result of unforeseen issues with the parachute system, which plays a critical role in ensuring the safe descent of the spacecraft. As a consequence, SpaceX currently stands as the sole American launch provider capable of sending astronauts to the Space Station.
In an official statement, NASA expressed its commitment to prioritizing crew safety above all else. The agency's rigorous testing and evaluation processes have revealed concerns regarding the efficiency of certain joints within Starliner's parachute system, as well as its onboard batteries heating up. As a precautionary measure, NASA and Boeing have decided to reassess and further optimize these components to meet the stringent safety requirements essential for crewed space missions. “Crew safety remains the highest priority for NASA and its industry providers, and emerging issues are not uncommon in human spaceflight especially during development,” said NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich. “[...] The combined team is resilient and resolute in their goal of flying crew on Starliner as soon as it is safe to do so. If a schedule adjustment needs to be made in the future, then we will certainly do that as we have done before. We will only fly when we are ready.”
This setback for Boeing's Starliner mission underscores the significance of SpaceX's pivotal role in the American space program. SpaceX's Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon has become an indispensable asset for NASA. The reliability and proven track record of SpaceX's crewed missions have solidified their position as the go-to choice for American astronauts embarking on space exploration voyages.
While Boeing and NASA work to address the challenges encountered in Starliner's development, SpaceX continues to carry the torch of American crewed spaceflight with its Crew-6 mission scheduled to undock from the Space Station sometime in August, and the Crew-7 mission scheduled to liftoff soon after to begin a six month mission at ISS. The company's steadfast dedication to crew safety and their ongoing success in launching astronauts have cemented their position as the leading force in the American space industry.
NASA and Boeing remain committed to resolving Starliner's issues and ensuring the utmost safety for future crewed missions. A rigorous evaluation process is underway before launching NASA Astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore on the first crewed demonstration mission of Starliner. The demo mission has undergone a series of years-long delays, it is now planned for no earlier than July 21 and the date is subject to change depending on how pre-flight testing goes.
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5/30/2023 3:35 a.m CT. Edit: Corrected amount of SpaceX crewed missions.
Featured Image Source: NASA
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.