NASA has ordered a second astronaut shuttle-craft from SpaceX.
The order for a Crew Dragon spacecraft makes it two orders apiece for SpaceX and Boeing to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
Boeing got the second of its two orders for CST-100 Starliner spacecrafts last year, and both companies expect to begin unmanned test flights of their crew ships next year ahead of actual manned shuttle missions in 2018.
Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX already shuttles ISS supplies aboard a cargo version of its spacecraft, with both versions of the Dragon lifted into space by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“The order of a second crew rotation mission from SpaceX, paired with the two ordered from Boeing will help ensure reliable access to the station on American spacecraft and rockets,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “These systems will ensure reliable U.S. crew rotation services to the station, and will serve as a lifeboat for the space station for up to seven months.”
Boeing received its two orders in May and December of 2015, while SpaceX got its first order in November. In coming months, NASA will tap one of the companies to fly the first U.S. astronaut shuttle to space station. That will end years of reliance on Russia for such missions.
The space agency’s contract with each company covers a minimum of two missions and a potential for up to six.
“We’re making great progress with Crew Dragon, with qualification of our docking adapter and initial acceptance testing of the pressure vessel qualification unit completed,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said. “We appreciate the trust NASA has placed in SpaceX with the order of another crew mission and look forward to flying astronauts from American soil next year.”
SpaceX is building four Crew Dragon spacecraft — two for test flights tests and two for missions. It’s building out a launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the missions, which will carry as many as four crew members to the orbiting space lab.
“With the commercial crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX, we will soon add a seventh crew member to space station missions, which will significantly increase the amount of crew time to conduct research,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s chief ISS scientist. “Given the number of investigations waiting for the crew to be able to complete their research, having more crew members will enable NASA and our partners to significantly increase the important research being done every day for the benefit of all humanity.”