3 Things to Know About NASA’s New Private Space Contracts
Private companies to carry NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on new spaceships by 2017.
In May, SpaceX unveiled the design of its Dragon Version 2, the manned version of the cargo ship that it uses to send supplies to the International Space Station. Boeing recently completed critical design and spacecraft safety reviews of its Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 spacecraft. Here are a few things to know about the spacecraft, their makers, and those big NASA contracts.
Playing PoliticsNASA has relied on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to send its astronauts to the station since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011. This has been particularly embarrassing in light of ongoing tension between the U.S. and Russian governments over the conflict in Ukraine. The U.S. government’s sanctions against Russian can have no teeth in space as long as NASA needs the Soyuz to send its astronauts aloft.
The new contracts are designed to end the reliance— something NASA administrator Charles Bolden conspicuously mentioned several times today, while also praising these new spacecraft for being made in America. The new ships will also allow more crewmembers to stay on board the station, and more Americans to fly at a time. In addition, they will provide for rapid recovery of scientific experiments sent back to Earth from the ISS.
"I’m giddy today," Bolden said at the news conference. "I couldn’t be happier."
More Money, More Problems?NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders said both Boeing and SpaceX had presented credible plans for reaching the station with crews by 2017. But the two companies won’t get an even split of the contract pie. Boeing is to get up to $4.2 billion, while SpaceX stands to make up to $2.6 billion. The amounts were based on each company’s proposal, Lueders said, though she refused to comment beyond that as to why Boeing was given more money than SpaceX for the same mission.
An obvious explanation would be that SpaceX is charging NASA less because it can, and because it has made lower-cost space access a major part of its mission. It already provides satellite launches at lower prices than other companies as well as commercial cargo delivery to the International Space Station. SpaceX is competing for U.S. Air Force satellite launch missions, which CEO Elon Musk has said his company can provide for less than half the price of its only competitor, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
NASA Sets the TimetableThe money for commercial crew service to the International Space Station will be awarded in stages as the companies reach program milestones. Five of these so-called certification milestones will be imposed by NASA; an unspecified number of other goals are to be set by the companies themselves.
The contract includes at least one manned test flight to the space station with one or more NASA crewmembers on board. From there, each company is to provide two to six additional missions to the station. The ships must also demonstrate the ability to stay berthed to the station for at least 210 days after arrival to act as the station’s lifeboats.
Will they meet the deadline? Reaching the station with manned commercial vehicles by 2017 is the program’s goal, Lueders said, but it is not a requirement. "We are not going to sacrifice safety for that goal," she said.