NASA expects to spend some $5 billion underwriting development of commercial spacecraft built by Boeing and SpaceX to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, officials said Monday, ending sole reliance on the Russians for crew ferry flights and eventually lowering the average cost per seat to around $58 million.
Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, said her company’s upgraded Dragon V2 ferry craft should be ready for an initial unpiloted flight to the space station in late 2016 with the first crewed flight, likely carrying a SpaceX test pilot and a NASA astronaut, in early 2017.
John Elbon, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, said his company’s CST-100 spacecraft is expected to be ready for an uncrewed test flight in April 2017, followed by a crewed flight, with a Boeing pilot and a NASA astronaut, in the July 2017 timeframe.
Both companies must complete the crewed and uncrewed test flights before NASA certification, which will pave the way for the start of operational crew rotation and cargo delivery flights to the International Space Station later in 2017. Until then, NASA will continue to rely on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to carry U.S. and partner crew members to and from the lab complex.
“Commercial crew is incredibly important to the space station, it’s important to reduce the cost of transportation to low-Earth orbit so that NASA has within its budget the capability to develop means to explore beyond low-Earth orbit, ” Elbon said during a news conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “And importantly, I think, it’s beginning a whole new industry. … We’re making great progress on the program.”
Said Shotwell: “Our crew Dragon leverages the cargo capability that we’ve been flying successfully to the International Space Station. However, we understand, and we’ve been told, that crew is clearly different. So there are a number of upgrades that we’ve been working for the past few years to assure that this crew version of Dragon is as reliable as it can possibly be. Ultimately, we plan for it to be the most reliable spaceship flying crew ever.”
In the wake of the space shuttle’s retirement, NASA started a competition to build a commercial crewed spacecraft, with the first in a series of contracts intended to encourage innovative designs for reliable, affordable transportation to and from low-Earth orbit.
Last September, NASA announced that Boeing had won a $4.2 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract to continue development of the company’s CST-100 capsule while SpaceX would receive $2.6 billion to press ahead with work to perfect its futuristic Dragon crew craft.
A third competitor, Sierra Nevada, was left out, and the company filed a protest with the General Accountability Office, arguing its Dream Chaser spaceplane was unfairly passed over. But the GAO ruled earlier this month that NASA’s selection of Boeing and SpaceX was justified, clearing the space agency to proceed with the CCtCAP contracts.
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