NASA plans to buy five more manned SpaceX flights to the International Space Station.
The agency announced a “single source change” to its contract with SpaceX, which operates the only American system currently carrying NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The expected value of the amended contract was not disclosed in an agency blog post (opens in new tab) Wednesday (June 1st).
The purchase of five flights complements a $3.5 billion deal SpaceX secured in February for three more astronaut missions on its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule: Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew-9 . NASA said at the time that it may order more flights from SpaceX.
For perspective, Crew-4 is in space right now, Crew-5 is scheduled for launch in September, and Crew-6 is scheduled for spring 2023. Assuming the newly purchased five flights continue consecutively to Crew-9, the contract change would see SpaceX through Mission Crew-14.
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While SpaceX is currently the only company sending astronauts into space for NASA, the agency said Boeing’s Starliner capsule is likely to be ready soon.
Starliner achieved its main goals during an unmanned test flight to the ISS that ended on May 25.
“The recent success of Boeing’s unmanned flight test helps solidify NASA’s long-term goals,” Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, said in the agency’s statement on Wednesday. “It is critical that we complete the development of Starliner without undue deadline pressure while working to position both Boeing and SpaceX for sustainable operations in the years to come.”
The space station is currently authorized to operate until the end of 2024. NASA wants to keep the orbiting lab running until at least 2030, but the program’s other major partners, including Russia, would have to agree to such an extension. Russian approval could be difficult given that many of the country’s other space partnerships fell apart in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Russia’s ISS activities and cooperation remain relatively untouched.)
Current rotation rates of space stations require manned spacecraft from all nations to hop up and down about four times a year to need the base station, including maintenance and science. However, NASA is not bearing all the burden. Russia supplies cosmonauts via its Soyuz spacecraft, which NASA still uses from time to time for its astronauts; For example, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth on March 30 in a Soyuz.
NASA sees SpaceX and Boeing as cornerstones for its astronauts’ transportation needs in the years to come; The agency awarded contracts for such work to both companies in 2014.
NASA noted this Wednesday that it may need to deploy additional SpaceX flights as early as 2026. Ordering additional Dragon missions, which can also fly after Starliner is ready, provides important redundancy, agency officials said.
The goal of this redundancy is to “maintain safe operation of the space station and allow each company to address unforeseen issues that might arise as private industry gains operational experience with these new systems,” NASA officials wrote in the blog post.
NASA added that the recent change to SpaceX’s contract does not prevent the agency from making further changes later if transport services become necessary.
Aside from providing services to NASA, Dragon has flown private manned missions into orbit — namely Inspiration4 and September 2021 Ax-1, which sent four people to the space station in April.
The spacecraft is also a key part of the Polaris program, a new billionaire-backed venture that will see Inspiration4’s Jared Isaacman return to orbit multiple times aboard the SpaceX spacecraft. Polaris flights are expected to include Dragon and a SpaceX system under development, Starship.