NASA ordered its first ever commercial crew rotation mission, which is set to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station by late 2017. The space agency awarded its first order to the Boeing Company, a move that could open a new era of commercial spaceflight.
“This occasion will go in the books of Boeing’s nearly 100 years of aerospace and more than 50 years of space flight history,” said John Elbon, chief of Boeing’s Space Exploration division. “We look forward to ushering in a new era in human space exploration.”
NASA agreed to send its astronauts to the International Space Station via Boeing’s CST-100 crew capsule in 2017, as long as the company doesn’t blunder and break NASA’s spaceflight regulations in the meantime. The space agency stated that the safety of the astronauts is one of its main priorities, but the missions also need to be cost-effective and reliable.
Boeing still has to meet every NASA spaceflight certification milestone before sending its capsule into space. The company recently completed one of the later phases of the certification program, the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), at the end of which the design of the capsule proved reliable enough to carry out the mission.
John Mulholland, the man in charge of commercial programs at Boeing, expressed his confidence that the company will have no trouble meeting the other requirements. “We’re on track to fly in 2017, and this critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design,” Mulholland said after NASA’s announcement.
Before sending any astronauts to the ISS, Boeing will first have to conduct two orbital test flights in early 2017. If things go well, the CST-100 capsule could become the first American-made spacecraft to perform crew rotation missions on the space station, ending NASA’s reliance on Russia’s Soyuz rockets.
And NASA couldn’t have possibly found better moment to do so, after the US government decided to stop using the Soviet-design capsule after 2019, as part of the sanctions for Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Nonetheless, finding an alternative was needed, since the Soyuz program has been put on hold for the moment, after one of the rockets crashed earlier this year.
However, NASA may have not only one alternative, but two. SpaceX is expected to get its own contract with the space agency by the end of the year, and Elon Musk’s company might carry out its own mission even before Boeing does so. The commercial space race is officially on.
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