NASA is getting closer to "returning America’s ability to launch crew missions to the International Space Station from the United States" as it awarded a contract yesterday to aerospace giant Boeing for commercial crew rotation missions to the International Space Station.
The first mission is slated for early 2017.
The contract is part of the Commercial Crew Program, designed to get Americans back into space on American rockets but not have it be a government program.
While the transition from strictly government funding to commercial contract will have taken over six years, during which the United States has relied on Russia for transport to the ISS, it marks the first time in human history that manned spaceflight is available for sale on the commercial market.
It won't just be Boeing doing launches, either. SpaceX, the Californian rocket startup that's launched unmanned missions the ISS, is expected to receive its first order later this year.
Boeing and SpaceX will then duke it out to see who can most cheaply and reliably shuttle passengers to and from the space station.
Just because Boeing has won the first contract does not mean it will get the honors of being the world's first commercial human spaceflight provider. NASA will decide who goes first "at a later time".
SpaceX has been making waves in the long-stagnant rocket market, recently managing to force its way on to the contractors list for the US Air Force, and successfully testing its capsule for manned missions.
SpaceX being able to launch military satellites doubles the number of groups who could provide commercial surveillance satellite launch services, placing America solidly in the lead for global commercial satellite launches. France and Russia both offer such services on older and more expensive rockets, while China and India have the ability to launch satellites thanks to a government funded space program.
The first crewed mission launched from American soil in American rockets is planned for late 2017, provided that the contractors meet NASA's "readiness conditions".
NASA stated that missions to the ISS on Boeing's Crew Space Transportation CST-100 and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will "restore America’s human spaceflight capabilities and increase the amount of scientific research that can be conducted aboard the orbiting laboratory".
"Final development and certification are top priority for NASA and our commercial providers, but having an eye on the future is equally important to the commercial crew and station programs," said Kathy Lueders, who is the manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. "Our strategy will result in safe, reliable and cost-effective crew missions."
"We’re on track to fly in 2017, and this critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design," said John Mulholland, Boeing’s VP of commercial programs. "Our integrated and measured approach to spacecraft design ensures quality performance, technical excellence and early risk mitigation."
The crewed missions to the ISS will carry four crew members and approximately 220 pounds of cargo. The capsules will remain at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time, should the astronauts need to flee the station for some reason.
Each contract that NASA awards is for a minimum of two and a maximum of six missions.
"Commercial Crew launches are critical to the International Space Station program because it ensures multiple ways of getting crews to orbit," said Julie Robinson, NASA's International Space Station chief scientist. "It also will give us crew return capability, so we can increase the crew to seven, letting us complete a backlog of hands-on critical research that has been building up due to heavy demand for the National Laboratory."