The space agency earlier had designated the Hawthorne, Calif.-based rocket company as a potential vendor for such services, along with Boeing. Now, also like that Chicago-based aerospace mainstay, Elon Musk’s starry-eyed start-up has a guaranteed order under NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability program launch astronauts from U.S. soil.
Boeing got its official contract order in May. Russian space agency Roscosmos has been the only ISS manned launch provider in recent years and will remain so until Boeing and SpaceX can join the action.
“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” NASA program manager Kathy Lueders said in announcing the SpaceX contract Nov. 20. “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.”
It’s yet to be decided whether Boeing or SpaceX will handle the first such mission, which remains at least two years down the road. Complicating things for NASA and SpaceX are the latter’s June 28 rocket explosion during an unmanned ISS cargo resupply mission.
Boeing plans to use its new CST-100 Starliner for manned missions and SpaceX its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will employ a Falcon 9 rocket for launch. SpaceX expects Falcon 9 to return to flight for the first time since its high-profile mishap with a pair of still unslotted satellite launches in late December after months of speculation.
“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.”
Orders under MASA’s Commercial Crew program are made two to three years prior to actual mission dates and feature a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions.
Typical missions will carry up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members and about 220 pounds of pressurized cargo, with the spacecraft remaining at the space station for up to 210 days.
“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, ISS chief scientist. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low-Earth orbit.”