The big news from NASA today is that the agency has finally picked not one but two companies that will launch the first astronauts from US soil since the space shuttle program ended in 2011: Boeing and SpaceX. But that’s about all we know. Details were lacking during both the press conference and the subsequent tele-conference. It seems all the questions we have are things agency representatives aren’t at liberty to discuss.
We do know that Boeing received $4.2 billion from NASA for the CST-100 spacecraft while SpaceX received $2.6 billion for the Dragon. The disparity (which NASA wouldn’t comment on) is interesting because both companies’ contracts met the same basic needs and constraints.
Under the new contract, Boeing and SpaceX will both have to pass a series of certification and design reviews. These are all designed to ensure the commercial vehicles will integrate seamlessly into NASA’s existing infrastructure, abide by all NASA procedures, and match with the International Space Station. There are also missions included in these new contracts. Both companies will launch between two and six manned missions to the ISS.
The first flight from either company (NASA wouldn’t comment on which is likely to launch first, but always bet on THE MUSK) is expected to launch on schedule in 2017. This mission will be a demonstration flight under the umbrella of the overall certification process. It will carry a crew of four, at least one of whom will be a NASA astronaut, to the ISS. In getting there, the spacecraft will show its ability to launch humans and dock with the station. Once in orbit, it will have to prove it can dock and stay docked with the ISS for a length of time without running into problems, while also serving as a potential lifeboat to astronauts in trouble. At the end of the mission, the spacecraft will have to bring men and women safely back to Earth.
NASA, without commenting on the selection process, said only that it was in the agency’s best interest to fund two companies rather than just one. And while both contracts fit within NASA’s budget as it currently stands, the date of these first flights is subject to change — NASA won’t compromise the safety of its astronauts for a schedule.
Notably absent was Sierra Nevada, whose Dream Chaser spacecraft is more reminiscent of the space shuttle than the Apollo-era capsule the other companies—and NASA’s own Orion spacecraft for that matter—seem to be taking their inspiration from.
These new contracts bring NASA a step closer to having a true commercial spaceport at the Kennedy Space Centre, but there’s still a ways to go before we will see anything fly.