Crew and cargo resupply missions will be launched from US soil by 2017, with SpaceX and Boeing both sending rival systems into low Earth orbit from now on.
"I don't ever want to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden at a press conference at the Johnson Space Center, referring to the Russian Federal Space Agency. "If we can make that date, I'll be a happy camper."
Bowden said that NASA was essentially handing over low-Earth orbit operations to the commercial sector and will be concentrating all of its efforts on deep space exploration and planning the route to Mars. Going forward, low-level stuff will be farmed out to Boeing and SpaceX.
Both companies have now passed the first testing milestone of their space capsules – Boeing's CST-100 and SpaceX's Dragon. NASA administrators said the two firms were offering a cost per astronaut of $58m per launch, while the Russians are currently charging $70m. Recent politics have also made dealing with Putin's government tricky.
Boeing is slightly ahead of SpaceX in testing its capsules for human use and will make the first crew delivery in 2017, said NASA Commercial Crew Program (CCP) Manager Kathy Lueders. It isn’t a contest between the two firms, she said, as NASA wants at least two firms to be available to offer ISS resupply missions in the future.
The Boeing CST-100 capsule will carry four crew members and a load of cargo and John Elbon, general manager of Boeing Space Exploration, said that each capsule was designed to be reused ten times (with refurbishment) for deliveries to the ISS.
SpaceX's Dragon capsule will hold seven astronauts, or five and the same amount of cargo as Boeing's capsule, the firm's president Gwynne Shotwell told the press conference. Unlike Boeing's machine, the Dragon capsule is also seeking certification to land on terra firma under rocket power – eliminating that whole sea-bound splashdown and retrieval cycle.
But there's a long way to go before that happens. Shotwell said that the Falcon 9 rocket would make at least 50 launches before crew members are put aboard and both companies will send up an unmanned spaceship before risking human transport.
Administrator Bolden said that Congress was now apparently onside with the crew resupply mission and said he was confident that the 2016 budget proposals to allow this would be honored by the legislature. This would leave NASA to focus on long-range exploration and allow the ISS to complete its task of research into travel beyond Earth's orbit.
"In 2024 we'll have got all the juice out of ISS and it will no longer be needed, so it's going to be taken apart and deorbited," he explained. "But a Bigelow module could be the next thing to replace the ISS in orbit – ten years is a good timeframe for that."
Bigelow Aerospace, funded by the owner of the Budget Suites of America motel chain, has pioneered the use of inflatable habitats in space. The bubbles are armored with reinforced flexible skins against debris impacts, and the firm has two bubbles in orbit already, with a third planned for deployment on the ISS. ®