NASA Kicks Off a Private Space Race Between Boeing and SpaceX

January 24, 2015 – 12:28 pm

Jason Davis headshot v.2By Jason Davis and Casey Dreier

Topics: private spaceflight, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, human spaceflight, International Space Station

Boeing and SpaceX have won multi-billion dollar contracts to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. The big announcement came Tuesday afternoon, and marks the start of the latest phase of NASA's ambitious Commercial Crew program. The space agency aims to restore human launch capability to the United States, while reducing the cost of spacecraft development and kickstarting a new industry.

Casey Profile Picture ThumbnailThe two winning companies have spent the past several years refining concepts for their spacecraft under previous NASA contracts—the aptly-albeit-poorly-named CCDev and CCiCap, for those of you keeping score at home. Tuesday’s announcement kicked off the next phase, called CCtCap, or Commercial Crew Transportation Capability.

Boeing’s CST-100 will launch atop an Atlas V rocket, and SpaceX’s Dragon Version 2 will fly on a Falcon 9 v1.1, though each rocket has yet to be rated by NASA as safe for astronauts. Notably, both spacecraft are capsule designs, which, along with Orion, marks a complete departure away from the space plane concept epitomized by the Space Shuttle. A third contender based on this concept, Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser, was not selected for further NASA investment.

Capture the flagSpaceX

SpaceX Dragon V2 Flight Animation


Boeing CST-100 promo video

NASA’s decision to select two commercial providers was news in itself, as it was unclear if congressional funding for the program would be able to support the development of multiple crew vehicles. There was also political pressure from Congress—the most recent NASA budget passed by the House (though not by the Senate) included language that urged NASA to select only one company for continued investment.

NASA has insisted on maintaining multiple contracts to encourage competition and lower cost and risk to the agency. While these contracts are “fixed cost” (i.e. any overruns are the responsibility of the company, not NASA), failure to deliver a working vehicle with only a single contractor would, in effect, put enormous pressure on NASA to provide additional funding to ensure access to the ISS. With multiple companies, one could fail and NASA could pin its hopes on the competitor.


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