NASA has announced that it wants more private-sector firms to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station beyond the initial 12 contracts they awarded to Boeing and SpaceX.
Their announcement comes days after Boeing announced that its next test flight of Starliner astronauts taxi is delayed until 2022. Boeing's Starliner was supposed to conduct its second test flight last August but an issue with faulty valves pushed the schedule into an undetermined time next year.
Current NASA Contracts to Boeing and SpaceX
According to Space.com, the current Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts NASA awarded to Boeing and SpaceX were given in 2014 as part of the agency's Commercial Crew Program. The contract certifies that the provider's space transportation system has met NASA's requirements before flying crewed missions.
Comercial crew systems have improved after years of development that they have achieved or are almost at operational readiness that will regularly ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, as well as provide a lifeboat capability to the space station.
Under these current contracts, Boeing and SpaceX were tasked to conduct crewed flights after the agency retired its space shuttle in 2011 and relied on Russian Soyuz flights. Boeing's answer to this contract is their Starliner, but the spacecraft has only flown one uncrewed test flight so far and has failed at reaching the space station.
On the other hand, SpaceX has already flown three crewed flights, including two operational missions and one test flight. The company is now preparing for another crewed mission that will take four astronauts to the space station next week.
Originally, NASA planned for a commercial crew flight to go up in 2017. But the delays in both Boeing and SpaceX have pushed that schedule and NASA continued to send astronauts aboard Russian Soyuz flights.
Then in May 2020, SpaceX finally sent its first crewed mission via a Crew Dragon carrying Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley with the Demo-2 mission.
NASA is looking forward to boosting its list of options, giving future flight systems a deadline until 2027 to acquire their certification. NASA said that the additional commercial crewed flights and the number of seats will be determined depending on the mission requirements.
Commercial Companies Shaping the Future of Spaceflight
Commercial companies in the US have been shaping the aerospace industry from the start, according to National Geographic. NASA has relied on private contractors to build a spacecraft for its human spaceflight, such as Project Mercury.
In recent years, the space agency has expanded its relationship with private companies under the Commercial Crew Program and awarded contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to build a spacecraft that can carry humans to orbit. In this way, they can send humans to the ISS for a fraction of the cost of a seat on a Soyuz rocket.
As the spaceflight and space tourism industry booms, it is expected that commercial companies will play an even greater role in shaping the future of space travel. Aside from SpaceX and Boeing, other private companies are also joining the industry, such as Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.
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