NASA Cements Future Of Manned Space Exploration By Ordering More Launches From SpaceX And Boeing

Artist's impression of Crew Dragon docking with the ISS. NASA/SpaceX

NASA has ordered more manned flights from SpaceX and Boeing – although neither company has actually started manned launches yet.

The two companies are contracted by NASA to launch humans into orbit in the next couple of years. SpaceX will be doing this with a crewed version of its successful Dragon vehicle, which has been taking cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) for the last few years. Boeing, meanwhile, is developing an entirely new vehicle – the CST-100 Starliner.

Both have been delayed, however, with launches originally scheduled to begin by this year. Now, they’re aiming for 2018 at the earliest. This hasn’t stopped NASA from cementing the role they will play in future manned space exploration, though. Four additional missions have been awarded to each company as part of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), giving them a total of six NASA-sanctioned launches each.

"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 of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division, in a statement. “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.”

The spacecraft will be used to take astronauts to the ISS, with each able to carry up to seven people – although only four will be taken initially. Even this is more than Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, which can take just three people on each flight. Each commercial mission will also take vital cargo to the station.

At the moment, SpaceX is targeting an uncrewed test of its Crew Dragon vehicle in November 2017, with a crew flying for the first time in May 2018 – the first manned launch from American soil since Space Shuttle Atlantis on July 8, 2011. Boeing, meanwhile, will perform their first unmanned test in June 2018, and a crewed flight in August 2018.

This means that, in a couple of years, there will be four spacecraft in operation capable of taking humans to orbit – Soyuz, Starliner, Dragon, and China’s Shenzhou. NASA hopes to follow suit with its own deep space Orion vehicle in 2021, and Blue Origin has its eye on sending people to space soon too. Not bad.

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