NASA ended its Space Shuttle program in 2011 after a review and during a shift in priorities to exploring deep space, including sending humans to Mars. Since then, NASA crewmembers have been catching rides to the International Space Station on Russian spacecraft—at a cost of $70 million per seat, according to NASA. The agency typically purchases six seats per year.
That process will be changing over the next few years, however. Earlier this week, NASA announced that under its Commercial Crew Program, it will award contacts to Boeing and SpaceX for spaceflight vehicles to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Of the $6.8 billion NASA plans to spend on its next two human spaceflight vehicles over the next five years, Boeing will receive $4.2 billion for its CST-100 capsule while SpaceX will receive $2.6 billion to finish developing and fly the crew version of its Dragon cargo vehicle, an article in Aviation Week reports. Losing out, was Sierra Nevada Corp., the third company that had received NASA seed money under the agency’s commercial crew-vehicle development program. In selecting Boeing and SpaceX, NASA chose traditional capsule designs over the reusable lifting-body approach Sierra Nevada advanced with its Dream Chaser vehicle.
What’s interesting is the difference in the two companies’ culture and approach. Boeing, of course, is a so-called “old space” company with decades of proven experience. SpaceX, on the other hand, is a newer company, founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk who has plans to disrupt the industry. Boeing’s CST-100 capsule uses the Atlas V rocket to deliver the capsule to space. SpaceX already uses its Dragon capsule to transport cargo to the space station, and is the first private company to do so.
Nevertheless, both companies face the same requirements, and both award amounts were based on what the companies said they would need to complete the work of getting their vehicles certified to fly four-member crews to the International Space Station, according to Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, in the Aviation Week article.
Under their contracts, Boeing and SpaceX each must meet five milestones, including having their crafts first undergo safety testing before manned flights take place. Then their craft must complete a demonstration flight to the International Space Station with at least one NASA astronaut on board. After that, each company will qualify for between two and six operational missions.
Something else which stands out is that NASA plans to use Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon to shuttle four astronauts to the space station on each mission. However, both capsules are configured to transport five passengers. Boeing will work with its partner, Space Adventures, to offer the additional seat to space tourists.
There also seems to be more advancement to come, as NASA authorities hinted at other ambitions. For example, NASA will conduct missions that will each set their own impressive roster of firsts, said NASA administrator Charles Bolden in an interview in CNN Money. Those firsts could include first crew to visit and take samples from an asteroid, first crew to fly beyond the orbit of the moon, and perhaps the first crew to grow their own food and eat it in space, he continued.
“All of which will set us up for humanity’s next giant leap: the first crew to touch down on and take steps on the surface of Mars,” Bolden says.
This is all exciting news, for those in the aerospace industry and as well as anyone who has followed space exploration efforts over the years.
What are your thoughts on NASA’s news, as well as the implications for the aerospace industry?