NASA says it will soon award SpaceX five more Crew Dragon astronaut carrier contracts after purchasing three additional missions from the company on Feb. 28.
This June 1 announcement means NASA has more than doubled the number of operational Crew Dragon astronaut launches planned between 2020 and late 2030 in the past three months – a move that represents another major shake-up from SpaceX about Boeing. . In reality, NASA simply made cold and rational calculations about its two commercial crew providers and – without ill intent – made far-reaching decisions to preemptively secure its astronauts’ access to the International Space Station. (ISS) for the remainder of this period. decade. Intentional or not, however, the optics of these decisions speak volumes.
When NASA awarded Boeing and SpaceX their initial $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion Commercial Crew Carrying Capability (CCtCap) contracts in 2014, the goal (or hope) of agency was for the two vendors to complete development of their Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft in roughly the same time frame. Boeing and SpaceX would then have taken turns, each carrying out a six-month crew transport mission a year and providing redundant access to the ISS for the rest of its life.
More realistically, the general assumption was that Boeing – a former aerospace company with half a century of spaceflight experience – would wind down Starliner smoothly while SpaceX – a 12-year-old startup – would struggle to push Crew Dragon crossing the finish line. Of course, the exact opposite turned out to be true. For what would eventually become (for NASA) $3.15 billion versus $4.95 billion for Boeing and development and test flight costs of $1.2 billion versus $2.2 billion for Boeing, SpaceX completed its first successful uncrewed and crewed Crew Dragon test flights in March 2019 and May 2020. In contrast, Boeing’s first uncrewed Starliner launch attempt nearly ended in disaster in December 2019. A second July 2021 attempt for this mission was prevented from launching due to unrelated technical difficulties. It wasn’t until May 25, 2022 that Boeing finally completed the equivalent of Crew Dragon’s Demo-1 test flight in March 2019.
NASA’s Feb. 28 purchase of three more SpaceX Crew Dragon missions was unsurprising. Starliner’s future was still unclear, and the Dragon missions it was buying could be needed as early as 2023 if Boeing’s spacecraft weren’t ready in time. The timing of NASA’s notice of intent to purchase another five The Crew Dragon missions a week after the completion of Boeing’s mostly successful OFT-2 test flight are somewhat surprising, however. Instead of throwing Boeing a bone after its long-awaited success and somewhat balancing the scales between its two commercial crew suppliers, NASA ultimately decided to buy more than twice as many crew missions from SpaceX.
After the successful launch of Crew-4 by NASA and SpaceX last month, the space agency needs another 16 six-month transport missions from SpaceX and Boeing to ensure astronauts’ access to the ISS from here. the end of 2030. NASA has announced plans to fly up to 14 operational Crew Dragon missions and up to 6 Starliner missions (via Boeing’s original contract). By subtracting the 4 missions that SpaceX has accomplished or is in the process of accomplishing, NASA will soon have all the contracts necessary to equip the ISS until the end of 2030 without buying a single additional mission from Boeing.
As a result, barring surprise, SpaceX will likely be responsible for launching 70% of all NASA and ESA astronauts from late 2020 to late 2030, while Boeing will be responsible for transporting the remaining 30%. A less likely result from the commercial crew would have been hard to imagine in 2014.