SpaceX Slated to Be NASA’s Orbital Taxi for at Least Another 8 Years

SpaceX should be NASA’s orbital taxi for at least 8 years

The partnership between NASA and SpaceX is set to grow even stronger, as the space agency recently announced plans to purchase five additional Crew Dragon flights to the International Space Station.

NASA has announced its intention to purchase the additional Crew Dragon missions in a contract notice published on June 1. The ongoing contract extension with SpaceX was partly driven by Boeing’s inability to deliver its own commercial crew vehicle, the CST-100 Starliner, on schedule.

NASA will acquire the five additional post-certification missions under a Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract, under which only SpaceX was able to provide a crewed spacecraft to transport astronauts to the ISS. The space agency is seeking consistent, reliable and safe access to the ISS, but with the Starliner not yet classified for human use, NASA had to go ahead with some sort of plan.

“Due to the technical and schedule challenges faced by Boeing, the number of missions previously assigned to Boeing and SpaceX, NASA projections as to when alternative crew transport systems will become available, and the technical challenges associated with the establishing and maintaining a [commercial crew transportation] capacity for crewed flights to the ISS approximately every six months, it is necessary to allocate five [post certification missions] to SpaceX,” NASA explained in its notice of intent.

NASA recently extended his tenure aboard the ISS until 2030, after which the orbital outpost will be removed. The five new flights with SpaceX further reinforce this plan. The amended contract also strengthens NASA’s relationship with SpaceX, which is under contract with NASA to deliver cargo to the ISS and provide a human landing system for future Artemis missions to the Moon. It also takes some pressure off Boeing, and NASA for that matter, to have Starliner classified for human use.

With the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2012, NASA lost its ability to independently launch astronauts into space, forcing it to rely on Russian rockets instead. This led to the Commercial Crew Program, in which SpaceX and Boeing were tasked with providing unique space transportation systems for crewed missions to the ISS and serving as lifeboats in emergencies.

Crew Dragon became available to NASA in November 2020 and has since flown four crewed missions to the ISS (not including the demonstration mission). A fifth mission is scheduled for September 2022, and a sixth in the spring of 2023. Last February, NASA signed a fixed price contract with SpaceX for a three additional missions, Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew-9. These three missions, worth a collective $776 million ($1,077 million), ensured NASA access to the ISS through March 31, 2028. NASA’s plan to add five Additional Crew Dragon missions would take the space agency to 2030 and include Crew Dragon missions 10 through 14.

NASA still hopes to alternate these future missions with Starliner flights; ideally, each commercial vendor will fly to the ISS once a year. Says Phil McAllister, director of commercial space at NASA, in an agency statement“Our goal has always been to have multiple crewed transportation providers to the space station,” adding, “SpaceX has reliably flown two NASA crewed missions a year, and now we need to bridge those flights to help to safely meet long-term needs.

Boeing’s Starliner approaches the ISS during the company’s OFT-2 mission in May 2022. (Photo: NASA)

The beleaguered CST-100 Starliner program is apparently on track to become human, as the recent Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) went relatively well, except for a few (seemingly) minor issues. NASA and Boeing are currently reviewing the mission and are hoping for a crewed test of the system later this year. Starliner’s first orbital flight test of 2019 didn’t go well, as the spacecraft failed to reach the ISS. A resultant investigation led to a series of fixes and additional delays. The insult was added to the insult when OFT-2 failed to take off during a launch attempt last year. The “anomaly” with the Starliner’s first flight test and other technical issues “demonstrates the importance of having redundant and back-up capabilities for NASA to meet the demands of its mission to keep crew onboard the ISS and to meet its obligations under agreements with its international partners to ensure continued crewed access to the ISS,” NASA said in its procurement notice.

The “recent success of Boeing’s uncrewed flight test helps solidify NASA’s long-term goals,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. “It is essential that we complete Starliner development without undue pressure on the schedule while working to position both Boeing and SpaceX for sustainable operations in the years to come.”

In the same statement, NASA said it was trying to avoid having to rely on a single supplier and wanted to create enough flexibility for each commercial partner to “resolve any unforeseen issues that may arise at as private industry gains operational experience with these new systems. It is important to note that the current contract extension with SpaceX will not prevent NASA from procuring even more missions in the future.

Starliner will have to play second fiddle to Crew Dragon, but that doesn’t mean there’s no future for the Boeing spacecraft. The ISS will disappear after 2030, but it is planned to be replaced by several commercially built space stations. NASA and commercial astronauts will always need a way to reach low Earth orbit, and that’s where Starliner will help. Well, assuming it ends up being rated by the man.

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