NASA announced plans to add three more flights to SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract as a hedge against further delays in the development of Boeing’s Starliner. SpaceX is currently contracted to provide six post-certification missions (PCMs) as part of the $2.6 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract that NASA awarded to the company in 2014.
The awarding of three additional flights brings that total up to nine PCMs.
The Commercial Crew program was created to create privately owned spacecraft capable of replacing the Space Shuttle program, which was retired in 2011.
SpaceX launched the Demo-2 mission on May 30, 2020 as the final demonstration flight of NASA’s certification proceedings. Demo-2 ferried astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station.
Since then, SpaceX has launched three PCMs officially called Crew-1, Crew-2, and Crew-3. It uses the Crew Dragon spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Each crew typically serves five- to six-month increments called “Expeditions” on the space station.
Although SpaceX does have its critics in Congress, it has become a frontrunner in competing for NASA contracts for its ability to save taxpayer dollars with its reusable rockets and spacecraft. According to a report published by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), each of SpaceX’s Commercial Crew program costs $55 million per seat, compared to a projected $90 million per seat on Boeing’s Starliner and $86 million per seat on the Russian Soyuz.
The affordability of SpaceX’s launch services has also made it a favorite subcontractor for launching hardware provided by other aerospace contractors, such as lunar landers built by Intuitive Machines, Astrobotic, and Firefly Aerospace.
NASA previously reassigned astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada from the Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon due to delays in Starliner’s development. Mann and Cassada will join the Crew-5 mission, which is expected to launch in late 2022.
Boeing was outwardly supportive of the decision to reassign the two astronauts, saying in a statement, “We fully support NASA’s decisions and remain committed to putting the safety of the astronauts who will fly on our vehicle first.”
Astronauts Butch Wilmore, Sunita Williams, and Mike Finck are still working with Boeing on the Starliner. They are likely to make the first flights on Boeing’s entry into the Commercial Crew program once the Starliner becomes operational.
The Starliner faced multiple delays due to technical issues. Most recently, Boeing and NASA delayed its Orbital Flight Test-2 due to a faulty oxidizer isolation valve on the Starliner’s service module propulsion system. The flight test is now expected to take place in the first half of 2022, though the exact schedule is still pending.
NASA expects that Boeing and SpaceX will effectively take turns flying astronauts to the International Space Station, with each company conducting one flight per year.