The deal is a representation of NASA’s increased willingness to offer contracts for space missions to private companies. SpaceX became the second of what will eventually be four companies to receive a guaranteed order from NASA under Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts. Boeing had received the first order in May.
“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a press release announcing the order. “It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.”
NASA doesn’t yet know whether the Boeing CST-100 Starliner or the SpaceX Crew Dragon that will be the first to carry astronauts from the U.S. to the ISS. However, NASA has decided that it will place the orders two to three years before the mission date to allow companies enough time to prepare the launch vehicle and spacecraft and to pass NASA’s mandatory certification process. Each of the contracts enables at least two and as many as six potential missions. The 2017 deadline has been set with the belief that the contractors will have met the readiness conditions by that time.
SpaceX’s crew transportation system, which includes the Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket, has completed a number of developmental and certification phases necessary for use. Perhaps most notably, SpaceX recently finished a critical design review of the system, proving that it is ready to undergo fabrication, assembly, integration and test activities.
“The authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. “When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”
Launches backed by private companies such as Boeing and SpaceX make it more affordable to send NASA astronauts to the ISS than what the agency had been paying to the Russian Federal Space Agency for the trip. Despite the savings, it’s no guarantee that NASA will get all of the funding it desires. NASA said that if it doesn’t get the funding it believes it needs for CCtCap contracts beginning in 2016, it will have to delay the flight of both the CST-100 Starliner and the Space X Crew Dragon spacecraft and return to using the more expensive service provided by the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Should the funding be awarded, the commercial crew missions will transport as many as four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members, as well as approximately 220 pounds in pressurized cargo.
“Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven,” said Julie Robinson, chief scientist for the ISS. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low- Earth orbit.”
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