Spaceflight Insider

Boeing, SpaceX update progress on commercial crew spacecraft

NASA Commercial Crew Program banner with International Space Station and astronaut NASA image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Boeing and SpaceX updated the progress of their respective commercial crew spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — When one talks of a space race these days, it is no longer just between geopolitical superpowers. Now several U.S. corporations are in a race to develop and launch their own brands of crewed spacecraft for NASA, hopefully starting as soon as 2018.

Boeing and SpaceX recently presented updates on the progress with their space vessels. The two aerospace firms are working to be the successors to the long-running Space Shuttle Program and the answer to America’s current reliance on Russian space systems for placing astronauts in Earth orbit.

“Astronauts will once again fly from the Space Coast,” said Lisa Colloredo, associate manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, during a May 24 panel kicking off the 44th Space Congress in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

In September 2014, NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX with a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract worth an estimated total of some $6.8 billion. With this contract the two aerospace companies are to complete development of their CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2017.

Boeing recently confirmed a slip of its first crew test flight to February 2018. Earlier this year, SpaceX also delayed its initial Crew Dragon unmanned mission from late 2016 to May 2017.

Boeing received $4.2 billion of the NASA contract. With these funds, their plan is to send astronauts into Earth orbit with their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 using United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets. Starliner should return from each of its missions with landings in the Southwestern United States utilizing a system of parachutes and airbags.

SpaceX’s contract has a maximum value of $2.6 billion to develop its Crew Dragon vessel. This crewed version of their Dragon fleet will eventually land on the ground using a retrorocket system. However, their initial test flights will have the Crew Dragon “splashdown” in the ocean and utilize a fourth parachute to handle the missions involving astronauts.

CST-100 Starliner infographic Boeing image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: Boeing

Boeing recently assembled the two halves of their prototype vehicle, named simply Spacecraft 1, at the Kennedy Space Center. This “structural test article” will then be shipped this summer to Huntington Beach, California, for tests.

“We’re bringing hardware in. We’re moving hardware out. And it’s really nice to see the factory flowing the way it should be,” said Danom Buck, manufacturing engineering manager for Boeing.

Ben Reed, director of the company’s Commercial Crew Program, described some of SpaceX’s efforts to develop reusable rockets. This included a video presentation of the first successful landing by a Falcon 9 rocket launch vehicle at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 22, 2015.

“I know that we’re going to feel like that, all of us are, when we put those first crew, those astronauts in there and watch them go up, and then bring them home,” said Reed. “It’s going to be that, I think, times ten when we watch that happen, flying right here out at Kennedy.”

Future SpaceX milestones include key engineering reviews of the Crew Dragon’s design and modifications to KSC’s launch pad 39A, the very place where Saturn V and NASA’s fleet of shuttle orbiters were lofted from into space. The pad modifications will include a new access arm and “white room” to lead astronauts to their vessels.

SpaceX Crew Dragon infographic image credit James Vaughan SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

One big hope NASA has with using commercial space vehicles to bring astronauts to the ISS and eventually elsewhere in the Solar System is that Starliner and Crew Dragon will be a much less expensive way to transport humans into the final frontier. This includes not only past efforts but also with the current use of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA’s Colloredo said that the Boeing and SpaceX contracts will result in per seat prices averaging $58 million, which is about $23 million less than Russia’s going rate for seats on the Soyuz.

“The cost effectiveness part, we weren’t 100 percent sure how that would turn out,” she said. “It turns out it is a very cost effective approach to go with the private industry.” Colloredo also said that the program will produce two certified crew systems for less than $5 billion, a relative bargain compared to historical costs to develop such systems.

As was noted in a report on The Space Review as well as on NPR, SpaceX also plans on using a version of its Dragon vehicle called Red Dragon to eventually place humans on the planet Mars. CEO Elon Musk hopes to have an unmanned Red Dragon landing on the Red Planet as soon as 2018.

This article was updated at 3:11 p.m. EDT on Saturday, March 29 to include links from The Space Review and NPR.

Video courtesy of NASAKennedy


Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.

Reader Comments

Robert Sirotek

Why do you media folk just show graphics of Boeing’s CST-100 and not Dragon V2. There is always this leaning towards Boeing. With all the innovation involved with Dragon V2 we want to see the same type graphics for there craft. Be Fair.

Hi Robert,
We did not find a similar graphic for SpaceX. If there was one, we would have used it. The story treats each company’s spacecraft equally. We also post plenty of SpaceX-only stories too. I hope that helps.
Derek, SFI Managing Editor

Jesus, why does there always need to be this butthurt SpaceX fanboy?

Mr. Sirotek,
Given SpaceX has not issued an infographic for Crew Dragon and, seeing the need for one, we commissioned our photo-illustrator to produce one – which we’ve added to this story.
Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Marlene E Arenas Fierro

While NASA will expand its frontiers of space, the economic costs and technoligical challenges will be bigger and difficult; really NASA needs these alliances to go further.

Marlene E Arenas Fierro

While NASA will expand its frontiers of space, the economic costs and technoligical challenges will be bigger and difficult; really NASA needs these alliances to go further. While I will wait 2018.

“SpaceX also plans on using a version of its Dragon vehicle called Red Dragon to eventually place humans on the planet Mars”

Source for this plan claim ?

A Spacex source for using Dragon for manned Mars missions please, good luck with that !

Space-X has not yet revealed its concept for manned Mars landings. One thing is pretty certain: Dragon is too small by itself for the long voyage to Mars and back. But Dragon *might* be Space-X’s intended landing vehicle for humans once they reach Mars orbit. We don’t know for sure, but it looks capable of it. That’s part of the point for sending Red Dragon in 2018 – to demonstrate landing a much greater mass than has ever before been attempted by anyone on Mars. It’s a proof-of-concept mission.

Elon Musk has promised to reveal more about Space-X’s manned Mars concept later in 2016.

There’s a chance that the ULA could have the first operational commercial crew capability to the Earth-Moon Lagrange points and low lunar orbit once the ULA’s ACES system goes into operation in 2023.

The ULA already has ACES configurations using the Lockheed-Martin Orion capsule as a beyond LEO crew vehicle. Ironically, this could replace NASA need to use the SLS as a crew launch vehicle for deep space missions within cis-lunar space, allowing NASA to use the SLS solely as an unmanned super heavy lift cargo vehicle.

Daniel Wisehart

Why is Boeing’s contract 61.5% more than SpaceX’s? Will Boeing deliver 60%+ more seats into space under the same contract?

NO ! They just wanted more money for less !

NASA’s procurement for commercial crew was for the vehicle and up to 6 launches. NASA was looking for multiple contracts, and received several proposals. These proposals were evaluated under a complex set of criteria, and were not strictly based on lowest price. SpaceX had the lowest overall price, thanks in large part to their head start on the Dragon capsule and their aggressive pricing for launch services. Boeing’s bid was rated the highest in terms of technical aspects and risk, which offset their higher price in the evaluation scoring. Essentially, NASA was looking for the “best value,” and SpaceX and Boeing had the two highest scores overall when considering technical and price criteria.

Marytere Contreras

Congratulations Mr. Larry Klaes for your interesting article. Thank you very much!!! 🙂

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