It’s only a few days into 2017, and SpaceX-related good news is pouring in. With their early September launch pad explosion behind them and a return to flight mission pending, NASA has now added more fuel towards a bright future for the company with four new contracted Crew Dragon missions to shuttle astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).
SpaceX has been developing its Crew Dragon capsule as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to help restore the United States’ ability to launch astronauts into orbit rather than purchase seats on Russian rockets. NASA previously awarded SpaceX two other mission contracts, now bringing the total number of awards given to six.
Also developing a crew capsule under this program is Boeing with their CST-100 Starliner. Boeing was granted four more mission contracts alongside SpaceX. Before the contracted missions can begin, both companies must finish NASA’s certification process for their crew capsule technology. SpaceX’s unmanned demonstration flight is currently scheduled for November of this year, and a crewed test flight is scheduled for May 2018 to complete the qualification. Boeing’s test flights are scheduled for June and August of 2018.
The contract awards did not come with a monetary exchange and primarily serve to assist the companies in their mission planning stages. The contracts also give NASA scheduling outlook in order to plan ISS crew rotations.
The Commercial Crew Program is a part of NASA’s two-prong approach to deep space missions. By handing over low-Earth orbit missions to private companies, the agency can focus its efforts on developing the technologies needed for its Journey to Mars and beyond.
SpaceX plans to launch its Crew Dragon capsule from Space Launch Complex 39A where it has been making renovations to accommodate crewed missions. The Complex has also received renovations to support the launch of Falcon Heavy, the test flight for which is also planned for later this year.