This week’s announcement by NASA of eight additional crew-rotation missions to the International Space Station (ISS)—four each by Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) partners Boeing and SpaceX—now secures the maximum number of contracted flights available to them. When the two companies were chosen in September 2014, after a multi-phase selection campaign, the terms of the combined $6.8 billion contract called for uncrewed and piloted test flights of their respective spacecraft to the ISS, followed by “at least two, and as many as six” operational Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) to deliver and exchange long-duration crew members to the orbital outpost. Boeing and SpaceX have now received the full complement of six operational missions apiece and, according to NASA, this recent award enables them to plan for all aspects of the flights and fulfil ISS transportation needs through 2024.
“Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” said Phil McAlister, director, NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division. “The ability to turn on missions as needed to meet the needs of the space station program is an important aspect of the Commercial Crew Program.”
Within months of being selected, in May 2015 Boeing received its first PCM mission award, as part of its $4.2 billion slice of the CCtCap contract. It was noted at the time that this and future orders would typically be made two to three years ahead of flight, thereby providing sufficient time for the fabrication and integration both the spacecraft and its launch vehicle. Boeing’s CST-100 vehicle—subsequently renamed “Starliner”—will fly atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V booster, whilst SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will ride the Upgraded Falcon 9. Both capsule-based spacecraft can deliver long-duration crews and up to 220 pounds (100 kg) of payloads to the space station, remain docked for around seven months, and provide an emergency-return capability if needed.
Subsequent contracts were awarded later in 2015, with SpaceX receiving its first PCM in November and Boeing acquiring its second award in December. More recently, last July, SpaceX picked up a second PCM, and Tuesday’s announcement provides for a total of six Starliner and six Crew Dragon missions by the projected end of ISS operations in December 2024. However, juxtaposed against this progress has been NASA’s struggle 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. This led to a $490 million modification of the uneasy contract with Russia, which currently provides the United States with its sole means of getting astronauts to the space station.
In the meantime, efforts to develop the spacecraft and rockets for the inaugural Commercial Crew flights continued. By the fall of 2015, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF)—formerly part of the shuttle-era Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF)—at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida was formally unveiled and by mid-2016 the crew module for the Starliner Structural Test Article (STA) was assembled and the upper and lower pressure domes for the first flight-like vehicle were delivered for checkout. Elsewhere, SpaceX worked to weld pressure vessels onto four Crew Dragons at its Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters. Two of these vehicles would be utilized for qualification tests and the others for actual missions. In the meantime, the Crew Access Tower (CAT) for Starliner operations at Space Launch Complex (SLC)-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station began to take shape, as revealed in an AmericaSpace imagery feature.
Although four NASA veterans—Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, Sunita Williams, and former Chief Astronaut Bob Behnken—were assigned in July 2015 to the initial Starliner and Crew Dragon test flights, it remains to be seen which missions they will respectively fly. “No Commercial Crew assignments have been made at this time,” NASA’s Brandi Dean told AmericaSpace. “The four astronauts … have been designated as part of the Commercial Crew ‘cadre’, but no decisions have been announced as to who will fly on what flight or even the order that the vehicles will fly in.” Last April, Boe and Williams tried out new-generation touchscreen simulators of Starliner at Boeing’s St. Louis facility in Missouri.
Whether a Starliner or a Crew Dragon, the reality remains that neither Commercial Crew vehicle will reach space in an uncrewed or piloted configuration before 2018. Last May, Boeing confirmed to investors that its crewed Starliner test flight had moved from its original December 2017 target to no sooner than 2018. It is currently understood that the uncrewed Starliner test flight will now launch no earlier than June 2018, followed by the piloted test flight a couple of months later, no sooner than August. It was reported at the time that issues related to Starliner’s mass, together with software and aeroacoustic concerns associated with integration with the Atlas V launch vehicle, were to blame.
As outlined by AmericaSpace’s Mike Killian, SpaceX confirmed last month that it had pushed the first piloted mission of its Crew Dragon to May 2018, although the uncrewed test flight remains targeted for launch in November 2017. The uncrewed missions are expected to visit the space station for approximately 30 days—via the recently-installed International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2 interface on the forward “end” of the Harmony node—whilst the piloted missions by Boe, Hurley, Williams, and Behnken are expected to fly for around 14 days in duration.
A recent report from NASA’s Office of Inspector-General on Commercial Crew indicated that the delays might stretch even further to the right, with astronauts not reaching space aboard either Starliners or Crew Dragons until the fall of 2018. This represents a delay of more than three years beyond NASA’s original goal of restoring its capability to launch U.S. astronauts, from U.S. soil, and aboard a U.S. spacecraft, for the first time since the end of the space shuttle era. The OIG report, published last September, highlighted that Congressional funding shortfalls have “contributed” to the delay, but that “technical challenges” with the spacecraft designs were now “driving the schedule slippages.”
NASA has previously emphasized that the orders awarded to Boeing and SpaceX do not necessarily imply that Crew Dragon will fly ahead of Starliner, or vice-versa. However, with neither craft expected to reach space before the middle of 2018, a highly undesirable seven years will have elapsed since the last U.S. piloted spacecraft returned to Earth from its final mission. This is significantly longer than the almost-six-year span between the end of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission in July 1975 and the maiden voyage of Space Shuttle Columbia in April 1981. And although U.S. astronauts have maintained a continuous presence in space during the interim, the fact remains that the uneasy relationship with Russia will continue for the foreseeable future.