NASA said it plans to purchase five more crew rotation missions on SpaceX’s fleet of Dragon spacecraft, bringing SpaceX’s contract with the space agency to 14 operational astronaut launches, likely enough to maintain the International Space Station on staff until 2030.
The five additional Dragon missions help ensure NASA maintains two independent crew sweat providers, with SpaceX and Boeing alternating astronaut missions every six months once the agency certifies Boeing’s Starliner capsule for the work, the agency said in a June 1 statement.
NASA awarded commercial crew contracts to SpaceX and Boeing in 2014, helping fund development of the Crew Dragon and Starliner spacecraft. The contracts guaranteed each company at least six operational crew flights to these stations, after test flights and certification.
SpaceX launched its first test flight with astronauts in May 2020 and began performing its operational crew rotation missions to the station with the launch of the Crew-1 mission in November 2020. SpaceX launched its fourth flight crew rotation for NASA in April. The fifth SpaceX crew rotation mission is scheduled to lift off in September, followed by the launch of Crew-6 in the first half of 2023.
Meanwhile, Boeing’s progress on the Starliner program has been slower. The Starliner docked with the space station for the first time during an unmanned test flight last month, finally hitting a key test goal originally planned for a demonstration mission in late 2019.
NASA officials said after Starliner’s successful test flight last month that Boeing’s first crewed test flight could launch late this year or early 2023. Assuming that flight goes well, the first operational Starliner mission to the space station could launch in late 2023.
Most expeditions to the International Space Station last about six months. SpaceX has performed all NASA astronaut missions to the station since service began in 2020, supporting crew transport previously provided by Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
But NASA wants an alternating cadence between SpaceX and Boeing once the Starliner comes online, with each company performing one long-duration crew mission for the agency each year, not counting fully commercial private astronaut flights. The Dragon and Starliner capsules can each carry four astronauts to and from the space station.
“Our goal has always been to have multiple vendors for crewed transportation to the space station,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA, said in a statement. “SpaceX has reliably flown two NASA crewed missions a year, and now we need to fill those flights to help safely meet the agency’s long-term needs.”
Assuming Boeing can launch its first operational Starliner mission in late 2023, its six crew flights will carry NASA through 2028. SpaceX’s 14 crew rotation missions to the space station would run through 2030, keeping the company’s fleet of Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets in service. throughout this decade.
SpaceX ultimately wants to retire the Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles in favor of the fully reusable, next-generation Starship launch system.
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is designed to launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rockets. The Atlas 5 is also nearing retirement as ULA transitions to its next rocket family, the Vulcan Centaur. ULA has set aside Atlas 5 hardware for Boeing’s six operational Starliner missions, but Boeing should work with ULA to certify the Vulcan rocket for human missions, or switch to another launch vendor, for any Starliner crewed flights. additional.
“Boeing’s recent uncrewed flight test success helps solidify NASA’s long-term goals,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. “It is essential that we complete Starliner development without undue pressure on the schedule while working to position both Boeing and SpaceX for sustainable operations in the years to come.”
NASA announced in February that it had purchased three more Crew Dragon missions in addition to the six that were originally part of SpaceX’s commercial crew contract. This contract extension was valued at $776 million, or approximately $64.7 million per astronaut seat round trip.
The Biden administration announced last year that it supported expanding US operations on the International Space Station through 2030. NASA is working with commercial companies to develop private space stations that could replace the ISS after its dismantling.
NASA said the planned expansion of ISS operations required the agency to procure more crew missions at the complex.
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