By the end of 2017, the U.S. space agency is expected to launch its first commercial crew-rotation mission to the International Space Station (ISS). For the endeavor, NASA has recently commissioned California-based company SpaceX.
Since 2011, when NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters were put out of service, all U.S. astronauts and those from other space agencies were forced to use Russia’s sturdy Soyuz capsules for such rotation missions, with a cost of $70 million for each crew member.
On Nov. 20, the U.S. space agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) gave SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule the green light to take U.S. astronauts to the orbital laboratory and back. In May, Boeing was awarded the same mission for its Starliner capsule .
Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s COO, said that the company took great pride in the recently awarded mission to the ISS and back. Shotwell pledged that the astronauts on board of the Dragon capsule, which is slated to blast off in late 2017, would ride on the safest spacecraft that was ever designed to date.
“We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country,”
Yet, the ability to launch crews to the ISS and get them home would depend on both SpaceX and Boeing’s capability of meeting all of NASA’s requirements for human spaceflights, i.e. spacecrafts will need to pass several tests to prove that they are fully capable of carrying humans to space and back.
For this purpose, both companies announced that they would conduct manned and unmanned test flights to the low orbit and back before initiating a crew-rotation mission.
NASA awarded the contracts to Boeing and SpaceX because they pledged to assemble the two capsules into perfectly functioning spacecrafts in two to three years at most. Last fall, both companies were awarded contracts worth of $6.8 billion to develop and assemble Starliner CST-100 and Crew Dragon under NASA’s Launch America program.
The program’s goal is to restore the nation’s ability to ferry U.S. astronauts to the ISS via U.S. spacecrafts that are launched from U.S.-based launch pads, and cut the U.S. dependence on Russian rockets.
Kathy Lueders, project manager at NASA’s CCP, said that the agency was excited to see that Boeing and SpaceX’s astronaut transporters were being built. Luedders explained that it is crucial to have at least two ‘healthy and robust’ companies involved in the crew-rotation mission.
So far, NASA hasn’t decided which of the two companies would fly the first commercial crew-rotation mission.
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