In 2011, America lost the ability to launch its U.S. astronauts into space when the shuttle program ended. That is due to change soon with NASA’s plans for shuttle replacements. Two years from now, NASA will begin to send astronauts and cargo into orbit and to the International Space Station aboard two commercial spacecraft made by Boeing and SpaceX.
The effort is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) whose goal has been to find replacements for the shuttles that can provide safe and cost effective “space taxis” to transport astronauts to the ISS rather than relying on Russian spacecraft.
This awkward reliance on a former adversary’s space program to transport astronauts to the ISS has been even more strained recently over U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia as a result of its invasion of Ukraine. As reported in the Telegraph, Russia said it would deny the use of the ISS to the U.S. beyond 2020 by refusing to transport its astronauts in response to the U.S. sanctions.
On September 16, NASA announced that it had selected Boeing and SpaceX to construct the new spacecraft. The Boeing spacecraft is the CST-100 capsule while the SpaceX vehicle selected is called the Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA wants to have “robust providers” to provide transport to avoid possible problems from technical issues according to Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. NASA’s contract with SpaceX is valued at $2.6 billion while the contract with Boeing is for $4.2 billion.
NASA’s ISS transport expenditures are a big factor in the need to advance the CCP effort. The cost to send a U.S. astronaut to the ISS on a Russian spacecraft is $71 million under the present contract with NASA. This compares with $58 million for a seat on the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 capsules, according to Lueders. The U.S. spacecraft will provide a welcome alternative.
Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and former shuttle commander, said, “I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017, hopefully.” Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency.
Planning for the cost of transition from the use of Russian spacecraft to the CCP to transport astronauts presents significant issues. If things go as expected, planned test space fights for both the SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft will be completed in 2017, allowing for routine crewed flight to start in late 2017 or early 2018. However, 2018 is not covered in the present contract with Russia and seats on the Soyuz spacecraft need to be reserved three years in advance. As a result, NASA may still need to pay for U.S. astronaut access to Russian spacecraft to make sure that U.S. is able to send its astronauts to the ISS.
SpaceX has already made progress in providing a manned spacecraft that can travel to the ISS. On January 12, USA Today reported on the arrival of the SpaceX’s Dragon cargo craft. This unmanned version of the Dragon cargo craft carried 5,000 pounds of supplies and equipment to the ISS. This is the same spacecraft in an unmanned form that will travel to the ISS carrying astronauts in a manned configuration.
As the time to sign a contract with Roscosmos approaches, NASA will need to gauge the progress of the CCP in deciding whether to contract for seats on the Russian spacecraft. However, the success of the SpaceX cargo craft is encouraging. With this success, the ability of the U.S. to regain total control of the transport of U.S. astronauts and supplies to the ISS with the SpaceX and Boeing vehicles is well within NASA’s grasp.