NASA just bought the rest of the space station crew’s flights from SpaceX

Zoom / The Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft are ready for launch of NASA’s Crew-4 mission.

Trevor Mahelman

NASA He said this week It plans to purchase five additional Crew Dragon missions from SpaceX to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.

Although the space agency news release does not specifically mention this, these may be the last flights NASA needs to keep the space station fully occupied until 2030. As of now, there is no international agreement signed to keep the station in flight condition until then, But this new purchase sends a strong signal that the space agency expects the orbital station to continue flying for a long time.

The announcement also notes that SpaceX will fly to the space station with more than twice the number of crews it has than the other partner in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing. Under the new agreement, SpaceX will fly 14 manned missions to the station aboard the Crew Dragon, and Boeing will fly six flights during the station’s lifetime.

Let’s run the math on that. SpaceX has already launched four operational crewed missions to the space station, with the November 15, 2020, launch of the Crew-1 mission. SpaceX has two more flights under its original crew contract with NASA. In February 2022, NASA awarded fixed-price contracts for the Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew-9 missions to SpaceX. The latest announcement will bring the total number of Crew Dragon missions to 14.

As for Boeing, it has not yet made an operational mission to the station. The company was recently completed A largely successful uncrewed test flight in May. Looking ahead, Boeing will likely complete a manned flight test of its Starliner late this year or early 2023, and then perform its first operational mission sometime in 2023, or perhaps later if problems are discovered with the manned test flight.

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“Boeing’s orbital flight test 2 went very well and we hope to be able to certify the Starliner system in the near future,” NASA Commercial Space Director Phil McAllister said in the agency’s news release. “However, we will need additional missions from SpaceX to implement our strategy of having each commercial provider rotate missions once per year.”

NASA has not yet announced the purchase of additional Starliner missions. This seems wise, as Boeing has not fully demonstrated the capabilities of the Starliner with a crew on board. But based on the numbers in this week’s announcement, it now appears likely that there are no additional manned missions to award to Boeing.

why? Because NASA only plans to do two missions to a manned space station each year, with four astronauts aboard each. SpaceX will be contracted for ten additional missions, and Boeing has six registered missions. There is eight years of life left on the space station if it stops flying in 2030. While additional adjustments to these contracts are always possible, NASA appears to have booked all the flights it needs for the station’s lifespan until 2030.

This does not necessarily mean that the Starliner will only fly six manned missions. Boeing has indicated its intent to also use the craft on special astronaut missions, most likely for commercial space stations under development. For example, Boeing is a partner in the Blue Origin “Orbital Reef” space station project.

But it’s worth noting that Starliner is currently only able to fly on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Boeing has had enough launches to complete NASA’s six original operational Starliner missions before the Atlas V rocket is retired. This means that in order to get the Starliner into orbit, Boeing will have to pay money for the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, or some of the vehicles other. Boeing has not definitively defined its plans for any post-Atlas V missions on the Starliner.

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