Second SpaceX crew flight ordered by NASA
NASA ordered from SpaceX a second post-certification mission to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This was the fourth and final order the agency has guaranteed through the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract – NASA ordered the other two from Boeing.
The Commercial Crew Program aims to restore U.S. human spaceflight launch capability, which was lost when the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Since then, American’s have relied on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to the space station. Both SpaceX and Boeing are contracted to fly crew via the Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively.
“The order of a second crew rotation mission from SpaceX, paired with the two ordered from Boeing will help ensure reliable access to the station on American spacecraft and rockets,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a media release. “These systems will ensure reliable U.S. crew rotation services to the station, and will serve as a lifeboat for the space station for up to seven months.”
While Boeing received the first order, what company flies the first post-certification mission has yet to be determined. Both companies are well into testing their spacecraft.
CCtCap contracts need to be made two to three years in advance of the actual mission dates to provide each company enough time to manufacture and assemble the rocket and spacecraft. Additionally, the companies must finish the certification process before NASA can give final approval for flight.
Recently Boeing delayed their first crewed test flight to February 2018, while SpaceX is currently planning their first flight by mid-to-late 2017.
“We’re making great progress with Crew Dragon, with [the] qualification of our docking adapter and initial acceptance testing of the pressure vessel qualification unit completed,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer. “We appreciate the trust NASA has placed in SpaceX with the order of another crew mission and look forward to flying astronauts from American soil next year.”
Crew Dragon testing is expected to ramp up in the next year. Currently, the first uncrewed test of the spacecraft is expected to launch in May 2017. Sometime after that, SpaceX plans to conduct and in-flight abort to test the SuperDraco thrusters while the rocket is traveling through the area of maximum dynamic pressure – Max Q.
The first crewed test flight of the Crew Dragon is expected to fly as early as late summer 2017. NASA has named four astronauts – Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley, and Sunita Williams – as the first to fly in commercial crew capsules. Their order of flight has yet to be decided.
A standard commercial crew mission to the ISS will carry as many as four crew members and 220 pounds (100 kilograms) of pressurized cargo. The capsule will remain at the station for up to 210 days to serve as a lifeboat.
“With the commercial crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX, we will soon add a seventh crew member to the space station missions, which will significantly increase the amount of crew time to conduct research,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s International Space Station chief scientist. “Given the number of investigations waiting for the crew to be able to complete their research, having more crew members will enable NASA and our partners to significantly increase the important research being done every day for the benefit of all humanity.”
Currently, six people reside regularly at the outpost – three Russians, two Americans, and a single astronaut from another participating space agency. It is unclear exactly when the seventh member will be added, however.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.