NASA is progressing towards what it describes as "returning America’s ability to launch crew missions to the International Space Station from the United States in 2017" by handing aerospace and defense contractor Boeing the first of its commercial crew rotation missions.
The Commercial Crew Programme has ordered its first crew rotation mission from Boeing, according to NASA, which also states that SpaceX, which successfully performed a pad abort test of its flight vehicle earlier this month, is expected to receive its first order later this year.
It is not yet known whether SpaceX or Boeing will fly the first historic missions, and NASA only states that the decision will be made "at a later time".
SpaceX recently managed to force its way on to the contractors list for the US Air Force, doubling the number of groups who could provide commercial surveillance satellite launches for our orbital overlords.
A Lockheed-Boeing joint venture had previously held the monopoly on such tenders.
The contract awarded to Boeing necessarily requires the orders for the launch to be placed prior to certification due to the lead time required for the first mission.
The mission is planned for late 2017, provided that the contractors meet the "readiness conditions".
NASA claims that missions flown to the ISS on Boeing's Crew Space Transportation CST-100 and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will "restore America’s human spaceflight capabilities and increase the amount of scientific research that can be conducted aboard the orbiting laboratory".
"Final development and certification are top priority for NASA and our commercial providers, but having an eye on the future is equally important to the commercial crew and station programmes," said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. "Our strategy will result in safe, reliable and cost-effective crew missions."
NASA's press release updates interested parties on the development of commercial space activities.
Boeing’s crew transportation system, including the CST-100 spacecraft, has advanced through various commercial crew development and certification phases.
The company recently completed the fourth milestone in the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the programme, the delta integrated critical design review.
This milestone demonstrates the transportation system has reached design maturity appropriate to proceed with assembly, integration and test activities.
"We’re on track to fly in 2017, and this critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design," said John Mulholland, Boeing’s vice president of commercial programmes. "Our integrated and measured approach to spacecraft design ensures quality performance, technical excellence and early risk mitigation."
Standard missions to the station will carry four crew members and about 220 pounds of pressurised cargo. The spacecraft will remain at the station for up to 210 days and serve as an emergency lifeboat during that time.
Each contract includes a minimum of two and a maximum potential of six missions.
"Commercial Crew launches are critical to the International Space Station programme because it ensures multiple ways of getting crews to orbit," said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. "It also will give us crew return capability, so we can increase the crew to seven, letting us complete a backlog of hands-on critical research that has been building up due to heavy demand for the National Laboratory."
While The Register would have enjoyed ending this piece with a "Boeing's in Space" gag, as the company has been claiming to have a spacecraft family for two decades we have decided against presenting old news.
Instead, we have contacted both Boeing and SpaceX regarding which company is likely to take the first mission and will update when we receive a response. ®