Spaceflight Insider

NASA orders first crewed mission to ISS from SpaceX


Photo Credit: Michael Seeley / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA placed its first mission order to SpaceX for the NewSpace firm to ferry crews to the International Space Station. This is the second in a series of four guaranteed orders the Space Agency plans on making under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. 

“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.”

Orders have to be placed prior to certification, so as to allow for the lead time needed for these missions to take place. If things continue apace and SpaceX meets readiness conditions, the flight could take place in late 2017.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Pad Abort Test photo credit Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX conducted a Pad Abort Test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft in May 2015. Photo Credit: Michael Howard / SpaceFlight Insider

“Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low-Earth orbit.”

The two companies involved with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program have each taken similar but different paths in terms of accomplishing the program’s directives. SpaceX has opted to field not only the crewed version of their spacecraft but also to send it to orbit via the firm’s Falcon 9 booster. Boeing, on the other hand, will use United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V 401 booster and potentially the yet-to-be-launched Vulcan Next-Generation Launch System.

According to NASA, both the Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 have successfully passed through both development and certification phases. Moreover, a Critical Design Review or “CDR” has recently been successfully completed. This particular CDR verified that the system was “mature” enough to proceed to fabrication, assembly, integration, and testing.

CCtCap orders are placed approximately two or three years before the actual mission is scheduled to take to the skies. NASA closely monitors and validates that each system is ready before providing final approval.

Each contract includes a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions.

If things go as advertised, a “normal” CCP mission could see around four NASA or NASA-sponsored crew members and about 220 lbs (100 kg) of pressurized cargo to the orbiting laboratory.

NASA has been dependent on Russia since the close of the Space Shuttle Program in July of 2011 for crew access to and from the ISS. Also, whereas Russian Soyuz spacecraft have remained at the ISS as a lifeboat, both Crew Dragon and Starliner will be capable of staying docked to the ISS for 210 days allowing the U.S. to have its own ability to carry out this important service.

Boeing received the company’s first mission order in May 2015. The final determination of whether Boeing or SpaceX will conduct the first commercial flight to the station has yet to be made. SpaceX has already claimed the historical prize of sending the first commercial spacecraft to the ISS via the COTS-2 mission in May of 2012.

“The authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team,” said SpaceX’s President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell. “When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”

NASA has been working for some time to cede control of ferrying cargo and crew to the sole destination in low-Earth orbit to private firms, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and SpaceX. Meanwhile, the agency wants to return to the business of sending humans to destinations further than low-Earth orbit such as the Moon, an asteroid, and eventually Mars. No person has been further than some 350 miles (560 kilometers) from Earth since 1972 when Apollo 17 returned home from the Moon.

SpaceX LC39A

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will launch from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The firm received a 20-year lease on the former Space Shuttle launch pad in 2014 and has since built a horizontal integration facility and made modifications to the pad to support the Transporter Erector. The company is planning for the first launch on this pad – a Falcon Heavy – to occur sometime in 2016. Photo Credit: SpaceX


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

Great article…

I really like the progress being made in this combined effort to make a difficult job of entering the outer space effort, Work with all of the tallent and very bright smart and focussed minds to make it all happen. This is no joke to head into outer space! “Misstakes are not allowed”. Good Job. All of you who worked to make it all happen, With out “giving up” or pointing fingers!

Yea real smart. Let a car guy who isn’t even a rocket scientist put you on one of his rockets that have already blown up because of faulty parts. Kill astronauts who have cost your government a gazillion dollars to train. Why does anybody trust this idiot. He has NO CRED when it comes to putting people into space.

Hi, Gary. Jim Cantrell says Musk IS a rocket scientist now. So I don’t see your argument making sense. Plus, NASA also had their LV blown up because of faulty parts, with people to boot. At least this is a simpler system, therefore one with fewer/less complicated/more obvious failure modes.

Anyone who criticizes Musk or SpaceX get’s called Gary Church sooner or later. Who is this infamous excluded one? He must have some very damaging things to say about NewSpace if he is so thoroughly despised.

In my view it is bizarre that after having killed two shuttle crews NASA is going to put people on another exploder. I guess a political campaign contribution goes a looooooog way these days.

That’s like saying that Boeing and Airbus have NO CRED when it comes to flying people in their airplanes.

Elon Musk is the most knowledgable CEO of any rocket manufacturer. By that argument, level of CEO’s knowledge, you should trust Spacex more than any other rocket manufacturer.

Boeing gets almost twice as much money for the same job and they still lose out on the first flight because they are running behind. The cargo Dragon Capsule has been pretty flawless which helped SpaceX get a head start. The Falcon 9 has had one failure after 18 launches. Truth is the Falcon 9 will get plenty more experience over the next year and a half before the first crewed flight. I do trust the Atlas V more than the Falcon 9 at the moment because it has a great record, but when it comes to the capsule I trust the Dragon V2 as it has hardware already being flown on the cargo version of Dragon, like its Draco thrusters used for maneuvering, the parachutes and shell structure. Dragon V2 is also safer because it has launch abort capability all the way to orbit. I am still confident that the Starliner will be a strong spacecraft and I am glad we will have two spaceships to ensure there are no gaps in spaceflight. Go SpaceX! Go Boeing!

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