Good news, private space fans: SpaceX has just been given five more missions by NASA to send cargo supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). The deal, reported by SpaceNews to be worth $700 million, brings SpaceX’s total number of resupply missions until 2018 up to 20 under their Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.
The deal, signed in late December, highlights how successful SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket have been. Dragon became the first private spacecraft to dock with the ISS in 2012, and since then has performed six contracted resupply missions. A seventh exploded after launching in June 2015; the eighth, CRS-8, is due in April this year.
“We order resupply flights from our commercial providers via the contract modification process based on the mission needs to resupply the International Space Station,” said NASA spokesperson Cheryl Warner, reported SpaceNews.
Interestingly, none of SpaceX’s competitors, of which only Orbital ATK has also sent a spacecraft (Cygnus) to the ISS, were awarded any improved contracts. This perhaps signifies the confidence NASA has in Elon Musk’s company. It’s not clear if there was a bidding process for these new contracts.
Each of these cargo missions will take essential supplies, such as food and resources, in addition to experiments and certain luxury items, to the ISS. Dragon is also the only cargo spacecraft that can currently return to Earth intact, a highly important capability, as it allows experiments and other goods to be brought back to the ground.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK, along with Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser spacecraft, are also contracted under a second batch of contracts to take cargo to the ISS from 2019 to 2024, which will keep the station stocked to the end of its planned operational lifetime.
These moves are helping NASA in its stated goal of using private companies to operate in low Earth orbit; SpaceX and Boeing will also start transporting astronauts beginning next year. NASA, for its part, wants to focus its own efforts on deep space exploration with its upcoming Orion spacecraft and giant Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
And it’s certainly an exciting time for spaceflight, with so many spacecraft in operation (or soon to be). Russia and Japan also regularly send spacecraft to the ISS, while China has its own separate manned spaceflight program.