NASA plans to purchase five more SpaceX crewed flights to the International Space Station.
The agency announced a “single-source amendment” to its contract with SpaceX, which operates the only US system currently transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The expected value of the amended contract was not disclosed in an agency blog post. (opens in a new tab) Wednesday (June 1).
The purchase of five flights comes on top of a $3.5 billion contract awarded to SpaceX in February for three additional astronaut missions with its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule: Crew-7, Crew-8 and Crew -9. NASA said at the time that it could order more flights from SpaceX.
For perspective, Crew-4 is in space right now, Crew-5 is scheduled to launch in September, and Crew-6 is scheduled for spring 2023. Assuming the five newly purchased flights continue in order after Crew-9, the contract change would bring SpaceX through Mission Crew-14.
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While SpaceX is currently the only company sending astronauts into space for NASA, the agency said Boeing’s Starliner capsule will likely be ready soon.
Starliner achieved its main goals during an uncrewed test flight to the ISS that ended on May 25.
“Boeing’s recent uncrewed flight test success helps solidify NASA’s long-term goals,” Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said in the agency’s statement on Wednesday. “It is essential that we complete Starliner development without undue pressure on the schedule while working to position both Boeing and SpaceX for sustainable operations in the years to come.”
Space station operations are currently approved until the end of 2024. NASA wants to keep the lab in orbit until at least 2030, but the program’s other major partners, including Russia, are expected to approve such an extension. Russian approval could be difficult given that many of the country’s other space partnerships have disintegrated amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Russian ISS activities and cooperation remain relatively unchanged.)
Current space station turnover rates require crewed spacecraft of all nations to fly up and down about four times a year for basic station needs, including maintenance and science. However, NASA does not carry all of this burden. Russia provides cosmonauts via its Soyuz spacecraft, which NASA still uses from time to time for its astronauts; for example, NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei returned to Earth on March 30 in a Soyuz.
NASA sees SpaceX and Boeing as keystones of its astronaut transport needs in the coming years; the agency awarded contracts to both companies in 2014 for such work.
NASA noted on Wednesday that it may need to use additional SpaceX flights as early as 2026. Ordering more Dragon missions that could fly even after Starliner is ready provides significant redundancy, agency officials said.
The purpose of this redundancy is to “maintain the safety of space station operations and allow each company to address any unforeseen issues that may arise as private industry gains operational experience with these new systems”, wrote NASA officials in the blog.
NASA added that its latest change to the SpaceX contract does not preclude the agency from making additional changes later as needs for transportation services arise.
In addition to providing services to NASA, Dragon has flown private crewed missions to orbit — namely Inspiration4 and September 2021’s Ax-1, which sent four people to the space station in April.
The spacecraft is also a key part of the Polaris program, a new venture backed by billionaires that will see Inspiration4’s Jared Isaacman return to orbit aboard the SpaceX spacecraft multiple times. The Polaris flights are expected to involve Dragon and a future SpaceX system under development, Starship.