NASA plans to purchase five more manned SpaceX flights to the International Space Station.
The agency announced a “sole source modification” of its contract with SpaceX, which operates the only US system that currently carries NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The expected value of the amended contract was not disclosed in the agency’s blog post (Opens in a new tab) Wednesday (1 June).
The purchase of five flights adds to a $3.5 billion contract awarded to SpaceX in February for three additional astronaut missions with the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule: Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew-9. NASA said at the time that it might order more flights from SpaceX.
For perspective, Crew-4 is now in space, Crew-5 is scheduled to launch in September and Crew-6 is scheduled for spring 2023. Assuming the five newly purchased flights continue in sequence after Crew-9, the contract modification would bring SpaceX across a crewed mission. 14.
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While SpaceX is the only company sending astronauts into space for NASA at the moment, the agency has indicated that Boeing’s Starliner capsule will likely be ready soon.
Starliner achieved its main goals during an unmanned test flight to the International Space Station that ended on May 25.
“The recent success of Boeing’s unmanned flight test helps solidify NASA’s long-term goals,” Steve Stitch, director of the NASA Commercial Crew Program, said in the agency’s statement on Wednesday. “It is critical that we complete development of the Starliner without undue scheduling pressure as we work to put both Boeing and SpaceX into sustainable operations in the coming years.”
Operations of the space station are currently approved through the end of 2024. NASA wants the orbital laboratory to continue operating until at least 2030, but other major partners in the program, including Russia, must agree to such an extension. Russian approval may prove difficult given that many of the nation’s other space partnerships have disintegrated amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Russia’s activities and cooperation on the International Space Station remain relatively unaffected.)
Current space station rotation rates require manned spacecraft from all nations to fly up and down about four times a year to meet the base station’s needs, including maintenance and science. However, NASA does not bear the full burden. Russia supplies cosmonauts via their Soyuz spacecraft, which NASA still uses from time to time for cosmonauts; For example, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hay returned to Earth on March 30 in a Soyuz spacecraft.
NASA sees SpaceX and Boeing as the cornerstones of its astronaut transportation needs in the coming years; The agency awarded contracts to both companies in 2014 for such work.
NASA indicated Wednesday that it may need to use additional SpaceX flights by 2026. Agency officials said that ordering more Dragon missions that may fly even after the Starliner is ready provides a significant surplus.
The goal of this iteration is “to maintain safe space station operations, and to allow each company to work through any unforeseen issues that could arise as private industry builds operational experience with these new systems,” NASA officials wrote in the blog post.
NASA added that its latest amendment to the SpaceX contract does not prevent the agency from making additional changes later as transportation service needs arise.
Aside from providing services to NASA, Dragon has flown special manned missions into orbit — namely, Inspiration4 in September 2021 and Ax-1, which sent four people to the space station in April.
The spacecraft is also a major part of the Polaris program, a new billionaire-backed project that will see Inspiration4’s Jared Isaacman return to orbit multiple times aboard the SpaceX spacecraft. It is expected that the flights will include the Polaris Dragon and the upcoming SpaceX system in development, Starship.