NASA's space shuttle program ended in 2011, leaving the agency awkwardly dependent on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station. That's changing, however. On Friday, SpaceX became the second private American company to receive an order for a crewed mission from the agency.
"When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown," said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX. "We're honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country."
The SpaceX order for a crewed mission follows on the heels of a similar order delivered to Boeing in May, after both companies had received $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion in federal funding in late 2014 as part of a Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract.
There is a certain urgency to NASA's desire to get crewed commercial flights off the ground, as the United States' dependency on Russian spacecraft has drawn increasing criticism from both Washington and the Kremlin. In August, NASA's chief blasted Congress after the failure to fund commercial space initiatives, and last year the Russian Deputy Prime Minister suggested that Americans use a trampoline to get to space after the US imposed sanctions on Russia for the latter's actions in Ukraine.
Although both SpaceX and Boeing plan to be delivering astronauts to the ISS by 2017, earlier this year Boeing announced that it would be the first to do so. The most recent order from NASA casts this prediction in doubt, however, with the agency noting that "determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time."
Last year the Russian Deputy Prime Minister suggested that Americans use a trampoline to get to space
SpaceX, which is already flying cargo missions to the ISS, will be taking up to four NASA astronauts and 220 pounds of cargo up to the ISS aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft riding on Falcon 9 rockets. According to NASA, SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will stay at the ISS for up to 210 days, acting as an "emergency lifeboat" during that time.
The rockets that will carry NASA crews to the ISS are the same that the company has been using for cargo transfers. SpaceX had a flawless flight record until this past June, when a Falcon 9 rocket exploded in an attempted landing. This led some industry analysts to criticize SpaceX for being overly ambitious, but according to its CEO Elon Musk, the setback would not result in any drastic changes in the company's plans going forward, including its plans to begin ferrying astronauts to space.
As promised by Musk, the Crew Dragon capsule has already undergone a number of certification and development phases, most recently undergoing a critical design review indicating that the craft's design was ready to begin the fabrication process.
"Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven," said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. "Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low-Earth orbit."