NASA Orders Five Additional Flights on SpaceX Crew Dragon

On June 1, NASA announced that it is adding five additional flights to the Commercial Crew contract with SpaceX. It says the additional flights will provide needed redundancy and continued reliable access to the International Space Station.

In December 2021, NASA announced that it plans to extend the International Space Station’s operations until 2030. It still has to obtain approval from partners in the International Space Station program. Current diplomatic tensions with Russia may make it difficult, considering that Roscosmos threatened to deorbit the space station.

SpaceX competitor Boeing had faced repeated technical-related delays with Starliner’s development. However, it conducted a successful uncrewed test flight of Starliner that included docking with the International Space Station. The Starliner returned to a landing site in New Mexico on May 25, 2022.

Due to the delays in the Starliner, NASA has relied solely on SpaceX since Commercial Crew flights to the International Space Station began. It previously reassigned two astronauts to the SpaceX Crew Dragon.

This most recent extension means that SpaceX could conduct crewed flights to the International Space Station through Crew-14 if Boeing doesn’t cut in with a finally ready Starliner. NASA had originally planned for the Crew Dragon and Starliner to take turns flying crews to the space station.

Astronauts flying on the Commercial Crew flights typically serve six-month increments on the International Space Station, performing scientific experiments and doing maintenance. Previously, five- to six-month increments were considered normal, with some astronauts spending up to a year on the space station for extended medical research.

Crew-4’s Crew Dragon is currently docked to the International Space Station and is expected to return home shortly after Crew-5’s arrival in September. Crew-6 is expected to launch in spring 2023.

Besides the now-expected fourteen flights that SpaceX will conduct for NASA, it has a private contract with Axiom Space to send four private flights to the space station as part of Axiom Space’s preparations to send inflatable modules. It already conducted the first flight, AX-1, which was commanded by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria. AX-2 will be commanded by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and is expected to launch in late 2022 or early 2023.

Plans to launch international astronauts include flying a United Arab Emirate astronaut to the International Space Station with Crew-6. The as-yet-unnamed astronaut will be the first from the UAE to serve a six-month increment on the space station.

SpaceX also plans to launch a Russian cosmonaut named Anna Kikina as early as Fall 2022. The matter may be complicated by Elon Musk’s willingness to take Ukraine’s side in its defense against the Russian invasion by providing access to the Starlink satellite Internet service and enhancing its ability to resist jamming.

So far, SpaceX is still the only American aerospace company that is capable of launching crews to the International Space Station, though Boeing got one step closer with its successful test flight for Starliner. NASA may have decided to hedge against potential further delays by adding five flights to SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract.