NASA signs first contracts with SpaceX for manned commercial spaceflight
SpaceX joins Boeing in planning first private manned launches to International Space Station, provisionally set to take place before the end of 2017
Manned commercial space flight took a giant leap forward as NASA signed its first mission orders with California-based private spaceflight company SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX joins Boeing, which signed a similar contract with the space agency in May, in planning for the first private manned launches to the station, provisionally scheduled to take place towards the end of 2017. But before they do, both companies will have to pass a stringent certification process for both their hardware and their astronauts, Tabatha Thomson, public affairs officer at NASA, said.
The missions will not take place until NASA verifies the safety of the equipment and crew. The flights, assuming they pass the certification, will take place on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
It has not yet been determined what specific missions the astronauts will be doing on the flight. But when SpaceX and Boeing successfully pass their certification tests, Thomson said, it will allow Nasa to to concentrate on “long-duration space flight”.
The cost of contracting out low-orbit manned operations to commercial operations like Boeing and SpaceX is considerably less than what Nasa currently pays the Russian Federal Space Agency for use of their Soyuz vehicle – their only option since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011.
SpaceX, which was founded by Tesla owner and PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, already flies unmanned supply missions to the ISS since it was contracted in 2006, using its Falcon launch vehicle.
The company has been experimenting with ways to safely bring its booster rocket down to a seaborne landing pad for future re-use – a spectacularly difficult feat. A test landing in April came tantalizingly close to success.
“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, in a statement.
“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.”