NASA Said this week It plans to purchase five additional Crew Dragon missions from SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.
Although the space agency’s press release did not specifically say so, it could be the final aircraft needed by NASA to fully occupy the space station by 2030. Until then no international agreement has been signed to make the station fly. But this new acquisition aerospace company sends a strong signal that it expects the orbital outpost to fly for a long time.
The announcement also says that SpaceX will fly twice as many crew members to the space station as NASA’s business team Boeing ‘other partner. Under the new deal, the SpaceX Crew Dragon will send a crew of 14 to the station, and will fly six during the Boeing station’s lifetime.
Let’s run that math down. SpaceX has already begun four task force missions to the space station since the launch of the Crew-1 mission on November 15, 2020. SpaceX owns two more aircraft under its original group agreement with NASA. In February 2022, NASA awarded Fixed Price Contracts for the Groo 7, Gro 8 and Gro 9 missions to SpaceX. The latest announcement brings the total number of Crew Dragon missions to 14.
As for Boeing, it has not yet flown an operational mission to the station. The company was recently shut down A big successful uncrewed test flight in May. Looking ahead, Boeing will complete Starliner’s crew test flight later this year or early 2023, with its first operational mission to fly in 2023, or if problems are detected on board test aircraft.
“Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 went very well and we hope to be able to certify the Starliner system in the future,” Bill McAllister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Space, said in a news release. “However, each business provider will need additional work from SpaceX to implement our strategy of alternate trips once a year.”
NASA has not yet announced the purchase of additional Starliner missions. This seems prudent, as Boeing has not yet fully demonstrated Starliner’s capabilities with the crew on board. But based on this week’s announcement numbers, it now appears that there are no additional teams to offer to Boeing.
Why? Because NASA plans to fly only two space station missions a year, with four astronauts each. SpaceX 10 will be contracted for additional work, and Boeing has six books. If the space station stops flying in 2030, it has eight years of life left. Although additional changes to these contracts are always possible, NASA seems to have recorded all the rides required for a stationary lifetime in 2030.
This does not mean that Starliner will only fly for trips of six groups. Boeing signaled its intention to use the vehicle for private space travel as well, with potential for commercial space stations under development. For example, Boeing is a partner in the Blue Origin “Orbital Reef” space station project.
But it is worth noting that Starliner is currently only capable of flying on the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Boeing has only received enough launches to complete its original six operational Starliner missions to NASA before the Atlas V rocket retired. This means that to fly the Starliner into orbit, you have to pay for the Vulcan rocket or some other vehicle of the Boeing Human Price United Launch Alliance. Boeing did not elaborate on its plans for post-Atlas V missions on Starliner.