NASA Adds More Commercial Crew Flights to SpaceX Contract

Not long ago, NASA added three flights to the Commercial Crew contract it had awarded to SpaceX and reassigned two astronauts to the SpaceX Crew Dragon amid concerns about delays in the development of Boeing’s Starliner. Now it is adding an additional three flights to the SpaceX contract amid concerns that the current international politics climate could impact operations on the International Space Station.

The chief of Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, threatened to use the Russian modules to bring the International Space Station crashing down on another country amid diplomatic tensions surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Contrary to public statements from Russia, the space station does sometimes pass over parts of Russia. Elon Musk says SpaceX could attempt to save the station if Russia follows through on its threat.

SpaceX succeeded in breaking Russia’s monopoly on crewed spaceflight with the successful Demo-2 mission last year. NASA had been paying Roscosmos up to $90 million per seat on the Russian Soyuz. Now it pays SpaceX $55 million per seat on the Crew Dragon.

Russia had previously criticized first NASA’s lack of crewed spaceflight capacity since the retirement of the space shuttle, then the SpaceX Crew Dragon. One official taunted that perhaps NASA could “use a trampoline or something” to get to the International Space Station. After the success of Demo-2, Elon Musk shot back, “Here’s your trampoline.”

More recently, Russia was considering having a cosmonaut fly on the Crew Dragon, though it’s unknown when or even if this will happen with the current diplomatic issues.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for the Crew-3 mission is currently docked to the International Space Station. It expects to launch Crew-4 in April. A Cargo Dragon full of the results of valuable scientific experiments returned in late January.

Additional planned missions to the station include a series of flights commissioned by Axiom Space to prepare for the addition of its inflatable modules to the space station. These modules will eventually be spun off into an independent station owned by Axiom Space. The first couple of Axiom Space missions will be commanded by veteran NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Axiom Space plans to make a total of four crewed flights to the International Space Station on the Crew Dragon by 2023. The first flight is slated to launch on March 30.

Inspiration4 organizer Jared Isaacman plans to return to space as part of the Polaris missions, which will conduct a series of tests involving SpaceX’s spacesuit model and some spacewalks reminiscent of NASA’s Gemini Program of the 1960s. These tests will be critical for journeys to other worlds like the Moon and Mars.

It may annoy Russia that the United States is becoming less dependent on the Soyuz with NASA’s plans to return crews to the Moon with the Artemis Program and SpaceX’s plans for Mars. NASA didn’t express much concern that Russia could actually follow through on its threat to destroy the International Space Station. The ISS currently hosts four American astronauts, a German astronaut, and two Russian cosmonauts, all of whom could evacuate on crew-rated spacecraft docked to the station if they had to.