SpaceX Slated to Be NASA’s Orbital Taxi for at Least Another 8 Years

SpaceX is slated to be NASA’s orbital taxi for at least another 8 years

The partnership between NASA and SpaceX is about to get even stronger as the space agency recently announced its intention to purchase five additional Crew Dragon flights to the International Space Station.

NASA has announced its intention to purchase the additional Crew Dragon missions in a tender notice released on June 1. The pending contract extension with SpaceX was prompted in part by Boeing’s inability to deliver its own commercial crew vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, on time.

NASA will acquire the five additional missions after certification under a Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract, under which only SpaceX has been able to provide a crew-rated spacecraft to take astronauts to the ISS. The space agency is committed to consistent, reliable and safe access to the ISS, but with the Starliner not yet approved for human use, NASA had to move forward with some sort of plan.

“Due to the technical and planning challenges Boeing faces, the number of missions previously awarded to Boeing and SpaceX, NASA’s projections of when alternative crew transportation systems will be available, and the technical challenges associated with establishing and maintaining a [commercial crew transportation] capacity for manned flights to the ISS approximately every six months, it is necessary to add five additional [post certification missions] to SpaceX,” NASA said in its letter of intent.

NASA recently extended his tenure aboard the ISS until 2030, after which the orbital outpost will be withdrawn. The five new flights with SpaceX further reinforce this plan. The amended contract also strengthens NASA’s relationship with SpaceX, which is under contract with NASA to provide cargo to the ISS and provide a human landing system for future Artemis missions to the moon. It also takes some pressure off Boeing, and NASA for that matter, to get Starliner rated for human use.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2012, NASA lost its ability to independently launch astronauts to space, forcing it to rely on Russian rockets instead. This led to the Commercial Crew Program, in which SpaceX and Boeing were tasked with providing unique space transport systems for manned missions to the ISS and to serve as rescue boats in an emergency.

Crew Dragon became available to NASA in November 2020 and has since completed four manned missions to the ISS (excluding the demonstration mission). A fifth mission is scheduled for September 2022 and a sixth in the spring of 2023. In February, NASA signed a fixed-price contract with SpaceX for a three extra missions, Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew-9. These three missions, worth $776 million together, secured NASA access to the ISS until March 31, 2028. NASA’s plan to add five additional Crew Dragon missions would push the space agency to 2030 and add 10 Crew Dragon missions. to 14 include. †

NASA still very much hopes to alternate these future missions with Starliner flights; ideally, each commercial provider flies to the ISS once a year. Said Phil McAllister, NASA’s Commercial Space Director, in a desk pronunciation“Our goal has always been to have multiple providers for manned transportation to the space station,” adding that “SpaceX has reliably flown two NASA manned missions per year, and now we need to supplement those flights to safely meet compliance requirements.” the long-term needs.”

Boeing’s Starliner approaches the ISS during the company’s OFT-2 mission in May 2022. (Photo: NASA)

The beleaguered CST-100 Starliner program seems to be on the right track to be judged by people such as: the recent Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) went pretty well, except for some (apparently) minor issues. NASA and Boeing are currently evaluating the mission and hope for a manned test of the system later this year. Starliner’s first orbital flight test in 2019 didn’t go well because the spacecraft was unable to reach the ISS. a resulting research led to a series of repairs and further delays. Insult was added to injury when OFT-2 didn’t get off the ground during a launch attempt last year. The “anomaly” with the initial Starliner flight test and the other technical issues “demonstrates the importance of redundant and backup capabilities so that NASA can meet its mission requirements to keep crew on board the ISS and fulfill its obligations under under agreements with its international partners to ensure continuous manned access to the ISS,” NASA said in its tender notice.

The “recent success of Boeing’s unmanned flight test helps consolidate NASA’s long-term goals,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is critical that we complete the development of Starliner without undue pressure on schedule as we work to position both Boeing and SpaceX for sustainable operations in the coming years.”

In the same statement, NASA said it is trying to avoid being dependent on a single provider and that it wants to create enough wiggle room for each commercial partner to “solve unforeseen problems that may arise as the private sector gains operational experience with these new systems.” ” Importantly, the ongoing contract extension with SpaceX does not stop NASA from purchasing even more missions in the future.

Starliner will have to play second fiddle to Crew Dragon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no future for the Boeing spacecraft. The ISS will be gone after 2030, but the plan is to replace it with multiple commercially built space stations† Astronauts at NASA and commercial enterprises will still need a means of reaching low Earth orbit, which is where Starliner will help. Well, assuming it ends up being judged by humans.

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