Drawing of the CST-100 on final approach to the ISS. Image credit: Boeing

Jun 2, 2015 NASA orders first commercial astronaut launch from Boeing

Sen—When will Americans go back into space launched on American rockets from American soil?

It looks like it’ll be 2017. As for who will launch the crew, it’s currently a dead heat between the two companies Boeing and SpaceX.

Both companies were chosen by NASA to return Americans to space on American spacecraft. That happened in late 2014 with NASA awarding them a total of nearly $7 billion ($4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX). The contracts were for continued development, two test flights and up to four operational missions to the ISS. 

And now NASA has taken the next step, actually ordering a “crew rotation” flight from Boeing. This is a big deal; it shows NASA is confident Boeing will be ready in 2017 to send humans into space.

There are some steps that need to happen first, though. The space capsule being developed by Boeing, called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100, has undergone an extensive series of tests but has not yet flown in space. It also needs to go through a pad abort test, similar to the one SpaceX executed in May for its Dragon abort system. This is part of a stringent NASA requirement that astronauts can be carried rapidly to safety if there’s a catastrophic problem with the rocket launcher.

Construction has already begun on launch facilities at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for the CST-100, which will initially launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V. It’s also compatible to launch with a Delta IV and Falcon 9 rocket as well.

Interestingly, SpaceX is ahead of Boeing a bit in testing its own Dragon capsule, but NASA has not yet placed an order for a crewed SpaceX ISS launch. To qualify for the crewed launch, both companies must first carry out two test flights. Firstly they need to launch an uncrewed vehicle to the ISS and dock there, staying for about a month, and then returning safely to Earth. Secondly there will be a two week crewed test flight. If the test flights are successful the spacecraft will be certified for an actual crew rotation mission. SpaceX says those flights with its Crew Dragon will be in late 2016 and April 2017, while Boeing will complete its flights in April and July 2017.

While SpaceX appears to be a few months ahead of Boeing in preparation, NASA is saying that it does not know who will fly the first crew rotation mission to ISS. Given the vagaries of spaceflight, at the moment it’s too early to say just who will be the first to send Americans back into space.

There’s a lot riding on this. At the moment, NASA and the US pay the Russian space agency Roscosmos $70 million per astronaut for flights to the ISS, and as we have seen lately, the launches are not as reliable as they could be. There’s also a lot of political tension over this, with the White House and Congress battling over NASA’s budget, including commercial flights.

SpaceX got another feather in its cap recently when the Air Force certified the company to launch national security missions. For years, ULA had a monopoly on those flights. It may seem like a tangent, but it still helps SpaceX in its goal to launch crewed flights; the military flights mean more money in the coffers and more confidence in the company.

Personally, I find all this wonderful. I want to see more access to space, because that will drive technology and capability forward, and costs down.

The last Apollo launch to the Moon was in December 1972. The first Shuttle launch was in April 1981, over eight years later. The last Space Shuttle orbiter landed in July, 2011, and—if all goes to plan—humans will once again go into space on an American vehicle in early 2017.

It may feel like a long, long time since we’ve done that, but in fact the gap this time around may be far shorter than the one in the 1970s. My hope is that in a decade, maybe sooner, that gap will be a distant memory.