NASA has tripled the number of flights awarded to SpaceX and Boeing Co. to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, giving Centennial-based United Launch Alliance four more manned missions to launch.
The Washington D.C.-based space agency’s Commercial Crew Program announced Tuesday that it has added four ISS flights each to SpaceX (also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) and Boeing, bringing each company to six ISS missions scheduled to fly by 2024.
NASA has turned to the private companies to develop spacecraft to carry U.S. astronauts to the ISS, initially awarding two missions each to Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, and to Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule. Each spacecraft is supposed to carry up to four astronauts and 220 pounds of cargo at a time to the ISS on missions starting in 2018.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will launch atop an Atlas V rocket made by United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.
The SpaceX and Boeing capsules are months away from their first commercial crew test flights. NASA indicated that expanding the number of missions for each company now will help in the spacecraft development and in the logistics of staffing the ISS.
“Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” said Phil McAlister, director, NASA’s commercial spaceflight development division. “The ability to turn on missions as needed to meet the needs of the space station program is an important aspect of the Commercial Crew Program.”
NASA has paid to fly astronauts to the ISS aboard Russian-made Soyuz spacecraft since the NASA space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011.
NASA wants the commercial crew program to return the U.S. to domestic launches of its astronauts.
Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled to fly an uncrewed flight test in July 2018, to be followed less than two months later by a test flight of another Starliner with astronauts aboard, NASA said. The CST-100 Starliner missions will launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s Space Coast.
SpaceX’s uncrewed flight test is slated for this coming November, with the Dragon capsule’s first crew flight test scheduled for May 2018.
SpaceX plans to use a launchpad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, next to Cape Canaveral, for its Dragon capsule launches.
Whether SpaceX can meet that schedule remains to be seen.
The Hawthorne, California-based company is trying to return Falcon 9 rockets to flight after grounding them to investigate a Sept. 1 launchpad explosion. An unmanned Falcon 9 blew up while being being fueled for a commercial satellite launch.
SpaceX said Monday it has identified the explosion’s cause and come up with fixes for the fueling problem. The company aims to launch a Falcon 9 carrying several Iridium communications satellites into orbit as soon as this Sunday.
ULA plans to phase out its Atlas V rockets starting in 2019, replacing it with a more affordable and versatile rocket it’s designing, called Vulcan. The rocket is also what ULA plans to eventually use to launch CST-100 Starliner missions.