Both of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program partners—Boeing and SpaceX—now have mission orders to deliver their first long-duration crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in the coming years, thereby restoring the capability to launch U.S. astronauts aboard U.S.-built vehicles, and from U.S. soil, for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle era in July 2011. Both companies are already tasked with staging an unpiloted demonstration flight and a crewed test flight of their Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, no sooner than 2017, but now both have also received initial orders to fly a “dedicated” crew-rotation mission to the multi-national orbiting outpost.
With Boeing having received its order in May 2015, NASA yesterday announced a similar award to SpaceX, marking the second of four guaranteed orders for the Hawthorne, Calif.-based launch provider. Between them, the two companies are expected to fly a minimum of two and a maximum of six crew-rotation missions, kicking off with the long-awaited U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV)-1, no earlier than May 2018.
Yesterday’s announcement comes a little more than a year since the two companies were selected as recipients of the $6.8 billion Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the Commercial Crew Program, with Boeing earmarked to receive $4.2 billion and SpaceX some $2.6 billion. “It’s really exciting to SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew-rotation missions,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.” The historic nature of the award was not lost on SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell. “This authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program,” she said. “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.”
It remains to be determined which company will fly the USCV-1 crew-rotation mission to the ISS, although both are required to execute an approximately 30-day unpiloted demonstration of their respective vehicles to the station, followed by a crewed test flight of about 14 days in length. Last July, NASA Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken stepped down from his post and joined fellow shuttle and ISS veterans Eric Boe, Sunita Williams and Doug Hurley to work alongside Boeing and SpaceX for the initial flights. At present, SpaceX envisages that its unpiloted Crew Dragon demonstration will occur in December 2016—although the catastrophic failure of its Falcon 9 v1.1 booster in June may adversely affect this target—and Boeing anticipates achieving a parallel feat around April 2017. Both would then be pole position to launch their crewed flight tests, with SpaceX targeting April 2017 and Boeing aiming for July.
“NASA ordered the first of two guaranteed Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) from SpaceX on 20 November,” explained Stephanie Martin, Commercial Crew Program Public Affairs Officer (PAO) at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, in an email correspondence to AmericaSpace. “The uncrewed and crew flight tests are not considered post-certification missions. Under the CCtCap contracts, both Boeing and SpaceX are each guaranteed at least two and up to six PCMs.”
However, the dates for the unpiloted and crewed test flights have met with some doubt, as NASA struggles to secure full Congressional funding for the Commercial Crew Program and the frustration of Administrator Charlie Bolden was barely veiled in a 5 August 2015 letter to the leadership of the committees responsible for the space agency’s annual budget. In his letter, Gen. Bolden denounced the continued lack of adequate funding for the program and announced a $490 million modification to the uneasy contract with Russia, which currently provides the United States with its sole means of getting astronauts to the space station. The General’s words came only weeks after the Senate Appropriations Committee cut $344 million—a 27 percent reduction—from the Commercial Crew Program budget and he noted that reductions from the Fiscal Year (FY) 2016 budget would “result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY2016” and would “likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of 2016”, thus inducing additional schedule slippage and increased costs. In making its announcement of the SpaceX award yesterday, NASA cautioned that if it “does not receive the full requested funding for CCtCap contracts in FY2016 and beyond”, it would have no alternative but “to delay future milestones for both U.S. companies and continue its sole reliance on Russia to transport American astronauts to the space station.”
The two ambitious flights will mark the first launches of U.S. astronauts, aboard a U.S.-manufactured spacecraft, and from U.S. soil, in about six years, roughly equivalent to the 1975-1981 gap between the twilight of the Apollo era and the maiden voyage of the shuttle. Both piloted flights will feature a two-person crew, with the inaugural voyage of Boeing’s Starliner expected to carry an “in-house” test pilot and a NASA astronaut—in keeping with the company’s flight-test heritage—whereas SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is expected to reserve both seats for NASA fliers. AmericaSpace was told by SpaceX earlier in 2015 that there is “no current plan for a SpaceX pilot or engineer on any of the flights” and, moreover, that the company does not have its own “cadre of folks in training or selected.” It is believed that SpaceX originally intended to fly at least one of its own crew members on the piloted test flight, but NASA opted against this.
After the test flights, SpaceX and Boeing will support a series of U.S. Crew Vehicle (USCV) missions, each remaining at the ISS for about six months, and carrying as many as seven astronauts and cosmonauts, thus allowing the station’s full-time staff to increase from its current six-person strength and for its scientific capability to correspondingly increase. “Commercial Crew launches are really important for helping us to meet the demand for research on the space station, because it allows us to increase the crew to seven,” said Julie Robinson, NASA’s ISS chief scientist. “Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low-Earth orbit.”
According to recent Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) documentation, the USCV-1 mission—carrying one Russian cosmonaut and three U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) astronauts, as well as up to 220 pounds (100 kg) of pressurized cargo—is tentatively scheduled for launch No Earlier Than (NET) May 2018 and will remain attached to the ISS through November of that year. Last May, NASA selected Boeing as the recipient of the first order for a “standard” ISS crew-rotation mission, although it was stressed at the time that this did not necessarily imply that the Starliner is definitely earmarked for USCV-1. Rather, it has been stressed by NASA that “determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first iwll be made at a later time,” but that “the contract calls for the orders to take place prior to certification to support the lead-time necessary for the first mission, provided the contractors meet certain readiness conditions.”
With the crew-rotation missions still more than two years into the future, the early orders have been made in order to allow Boeing and SpaceX sufficient time to manufacture and assemble the launch vehicle—a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 422, equipped with a 13-foot-diameter (4-meter) Payload Fairing (PLF), two strap-on boosters, and a Dual-Engine Centaur (DEC) upper stage, in the case of the Starliner, and a Falcon 9 v1.2 (or “Full Thrust”), in the case of the Crew Dragon—and their spacecraft.
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