NASA said this week that it plans to purchase five additional Crew Dragon missions from SpaceX to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Although the space agency’s press release doesn’t say specifically, these could be the last flights NASA needs to keep the space station fully occupied until 2030. At present, no agreement international was signed for the station to continue flying until then. but this new deal sends a strong signal that the space agency expects the orbital outpost to keep flying for as long.
The announcement also suggests that SpaceX will fly more than twice as many crew members to the space station as NASA’s other commercial crew program partner, Boeing. Under the new agreement, SpaceX would fly 14 crewed missions to the station on Crew Dragon, and Boeing would fly six during the station’s lifetime.
Let’s do the math on this. SpaceX has already launched four operational crew missions to the space station, dating back to the Nov. 15, 2020 launch of the Crew-1 mission. SpaceX has two more flights under its initial crew contract with NASA. In February 2022, NASA awarded fixed-price contracts for the Crew-7, Crew-8, and Crew-9 missions to SpaceX. The latest announcement would bring the total number of Crew Dragon missions to 14.
As for Boeing, it has not yet carried out an operational mission to the station. The company recently conducted a largely successful unmanned test flight in May. Going forward, Boeing will likely conduct a crewed flight test of Starliner late this year or early 2023, then fly its first operational mission in 2023, or possibly later if issues are discovered during the crewed test flight.
“Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 went very well and we hope to be able to certify the Starliner system in the near future,” said Phil McAllister, director of commercial space at NASA, in the press release. of the agency. “However, we will require additional missions from SpaceX to implement our strategy of having each commercial vendor rotate missions once a year.”
NASA has not yet announced the purchase of additional Starliner missions. This seems prudent, as Boeing has yet to fully demonstrate the crewed Starliner’s capabilities. But based on the numbers in this week’s announcement, it now seems likely that there are no additional crewed missions to be assigned to Boeing.
Why? Because NASA only plans to fly two crewed space missions a year, with four astronauts on board each. SpaceX would be contracted for 10 more missions, and Boeing has six on the books. The space station has eight years of life remaining if it ceases flying in 2030. While additional changes to these contracts are always possible, NASA appears to have booked all the rides it needs for a lifetime of the station until 2030.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Starliner will only fly six crewed missions. Boeing has signaled plans to use the vehicle for private astronaut missions as well, likely to commercial space stations under development. For example, Boeing is a partner in Blue Origin’s “Orbital Reef” space station project.
But it should be noted that currently Starliner is only able to fly on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Boeing only got enough launches to complete its initial six operational Starliner missions for NASA before the Atlas V rocket was retired. the United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket, or another vehicle. Boeing has not definitively defined its plans for post-Atlas V missions on Starliner.