NASA has officially ordered its first crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from Elon Musk’s California-based company SpaceX. The launch is scheduled for an as yet unconfirmed date in late 2017, and will compete with Boeing for the first launch from American soil since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.
SpaceX and Boeing have received billions of dollars to develop manned spacecraft – known as Crew Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner respectively – as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program. Boeing received its own official order for a crewed launch back in May this year, but it remains unclear which spacecraft will have the honor of launching first. These are the first two of four manned crew launches to be ordered by NASA, although it’s likely there will be more.
"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, in a statement. "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."
Although Dragon is capable of taking seven crew to orbit, this inaugural mission will see just four astronauts launch – possibly the four that were selected earlier this year. Both Crew Dragon and Starliner will remain docked at the ISS for about 210 days, taking astronauts into space and back to Earth, and acting as an emergency escape capsule in the interim.
Image credit: SpaceX will use Launch Bad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida for launches. SpaceX.
Crew Dragon and Starliner are both capsules, not too dissimilar to the Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s and 1970s. But whereas those historic spacecraft landed with the use of parachutes, Dragon will touch down using thrusters for a “soft landing” on the ground. Starliner will still use parachutes to land.
The CCtCap program is an effort by NASA to outsource missions to low Earth orbit to private companies, as the agency sets its sights on the loftier goal of getting humans to Mars with its Orion capsule and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
"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 Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, in the statement. “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.”
Returning manned launches to American soil has been a key goal of current NASA administrator Charlie Bolden. At the moment, only Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is capable of taking humans to the ISS, something that has caused some unease at NASA in the past. But that will be all set to change from 2017. The ISS is expected to remain operational until at least 2024, with the possibility of a privately-run space station being launched at a later date.
While no firm launch dates have been set, this latest news is a significant milestone in maintaining humanity’s continuous presence in space, which recently surpassed 15 years of non-stop occupation of the ISS.