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Image: SpaceX Crew Dragon
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule en route to the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

NASA has ordered its first mission from SpaceX to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, six months after placing a similar order with Boeing.

“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said today in a news release. “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.”

Both companies are developing space taxis for NASA’s use as early as 2017, under the terms of multibillion-dollar contracts that were awarded last year.

Even though the first order went to Boeing, it has not yet been determined whether Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will go first. The contracts required NASA to put in its orders early, but the scheduling decisions and required certifications will be made at a later time.

Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said NASA’s order was a “great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, like Boeing’s Starliner, can accommodate as many as seven people – but the standard mission to the space station and back will carry up four spacefliers and about 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. The spacecraft will remain at the station for up to 210 days and be available as emergency lifeboats during that time.

Once the Dragon and the Starliner are up and running, NASA can stop paying the Russians $70 million per seat to transport space station astronauts back and forth on Soyuz spacecraft. SpaceX and Boeing say they intend to beat Russia’s price for space taxi rides.

Meanwhile, NASA is working on a more capable, more expensive Orion crew capsule that’s meant for trips beyond Earth orbit. Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for Orion, which is expected to carry its first crew by 2023.

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