NASA has awarded four more contracts to Boeing and to SpaceX for space taxi trips to and from the International Space Station – dependent on certification that the spacecraft are safe.
SpaceX is working on a crew-capable version of its Dragon capsule for NASA’s use, while Boeing is developing a capsule known as the CST-100 Starliner. Each company has already been given contracts for two flights; the contracts announced today brings the total trips to six for each.
The space taxis haven’t yet been tested in flight. SpaceX has scheduled an uncrewed demonstration flight of its Crew Dragon to the space station in November, followed by a crewed flight test in May 2018. Boeing’s schedule calls for an uncrewed flight in June 2018 and a crewed flight test in August 2018.
The demonstrations are covered under $6.8 billion in development contracts that NASA awarded in 2014. The 12 flights covered by the follow-up contracts would go ahead once the test flights are flown and NASA certifies the taxis.
The post-certification contract awards do not require NASA to make any payments at this time, but they do provide Boeing and SpaceX with commitments that will help them plan for future needs.
“Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, said in a news release. “The ability to turn on missions as needed to meet the needs of the space station program is an important aspect of the Commercial Crew Program.”
Since the space shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011, NASA has had to depend on the Russians to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, at a cost that now amounts to more than $80 million per seat. SpaceX and Boeing say they can do the job for less.
Each taxi flight calls for transporting up to four astronauts and about 220 pounds of critical cargo, either for scheduled crew rotation or in an emergency lifeboat situation. Both companies would launch from Florida’s Space Coast.
Boeing would send the Starliner into orbit using a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41, while SpaceX would launch its Crew Dragon from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A atop a Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX could start using Pad 39A, which served as the departure point for Apollo moon missions and shuttle flights, for satellite launches as early as this month.
Meanwhile, NASA is working on its own launch system for flights beyond Earth orbit. The first flight test of the heavy-lift Space Launch System is scheduled for late 2018. It’s due to send an uncrewed Orion space capsule around the moon and back. Crewed flights would follow in the 2020s.