They haven’t even launched their first manned mission yet, but Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already been given a second crewed mission contract by NASA to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
On Friday, July 29, NASA revealed it had awarded SpaceX a new contract as part of its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability. It was given its first order for a manned flight in November 2015. Boeing, the other company under contract by NASA to fly astronauts, received two orders in May and December of 2015.
NASA has been heavily investing in private spacecraft to replace the Space Shuttle, which was retired in July 2011, and return manned launches to American soil. At the moment, they rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to launch astronauts to the ISS.
"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," said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, in a statement. "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."
SpaceX’s vehicle they are developing is the Crew Dragon, or Dragon V2, an upgraded version of its already operational unmanned Dragon spacecraft. Dragon V2 is currently undergoing testing, but SpaceX are pushing towards a launch in late 2017. Boeing, meanwhile, is hard at work on its CST-100 Starliner capsule, which may not make its first manned flight until 2018.
SpaceX has already been busy taking cargo to the ISS with its Dragon spacecraft
Once both these vehicles are up and running, they will double the number of manned spacecraft in operation – at the moment there's only Russia’s Soyuz and China’s Shenzhou. Both Dragon V2 and CST-100 will initially be capable of taking four astronauts to space, compared to three for both Soyuz and Shenzhou. This means the number of crew on the ISS will be increased to seven people, from six at the moment.
Ultimately, though, SpaceX has bigger ambitions for its manned missions. Dragon V2 will eventually be capable of taking seven people into space, although it’s unknown at the moment if NASA will use this increased capability for the ISS. And Elon Musk has made no secret of his desire to send humans to Mars, with a first unmanned mission of the so-called “Red Dragon” – a version of Dragon that can land on Mars – expected in 2018.
This latest contract from NASA further cements the belief in SpaceX to deliver on its promises. And it means that, in just a few years, we’ll have four separate operational spacecraft capable of launching humans to space. Who said spaceflight had lost its mojo?