As of this week, NASA announced it will partner with two American companies to provide transportation for American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). According to Reuters, the U.S. space agency awarded a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing whose headquarters are in Chicago, Illinois and a $2.6 billion contract to SpaceX that is based in Hawthorne, California.
This move ends U.S. dependence on Russia for astronaut transportation to the ISS. Since the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, the only way for American astronauts to get to the space station has been on Russian Soyuz capsules. This cost NASA $70 million per person. Although China is the other remaining country capable of human spaceflights, it is not a member of the 15-nation space station partnership.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) was established to foster the development of American commercial crew space transportation. The program’s ultimate objective is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective passage to and from the ISS and low-Earth orbit. NASA’s prior approach for crew transportation systems involved:
- NASA engineers and specialists overseeing every aspect of the spacecraft, support systems and operations plans
- An aerospace contractor building the crew transportation system according to NASA standards and design criteria
- NASA personnel processing, testing, launching and operating the transportation system
- NASA owning the operating infrastructure and every spacecraft built for humans from Mercury to the American section of the ISS
In contrast to the old approach, NASA’s CCP entails:
- NASA engineers and specialists collaborating with companies to develop transportation systems that carry humans to low-Earth orbit and back
- Companies having the freedom to design the system they believe provides the best solution for NASA
- The companies owning and operating their own spacecraft and infrastructure
NASA has spent approximately $1.5 billion since 2010 investing in partner companies under the CCP. SpaceX and Boeing have won the majority of NASA’s development funds.
With the CCP, private companies are able to sell human space transportation to other customers besides NASA which reduces the costs for all customers. By allowing these companies to manage voyages to low-Earth orbit, NASA can center its attention on obtaining the most research and experience out of U.S. investment in the ISS. Furthermore, the space agency can spend more time building spacecraft and rockets for deep space exploration. Commercial flight services based on the Boeing and SpaceX contracts are expected to begin in 2017.
(Photo: CST-100 Mock-Up by NASA/Robert Markowitz [Public domain])