NASA Orders First SpaceX Commercial Crew Launch

NASA Orders First SpaceX Commercial Crew Launch

NASA today formally placed its first order with SpaceX for a commercial crew mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  The date for the launch, and whether SpaceX or Boeing will conduct the first such trip to the ISS, will be determined later.

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded contracts by NASA in September 2014 to take crews to and from the ISS at least twice and up to six times on their Dragon Crew and CST-100 Starliner capsules respectively.   Dragon Crew will launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  Starliner will launch using United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  ULA is owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

NASA says that it needs to place orders for the flights under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts two-three years before launch to give the companies adequate lead time to build the launch vehicles and capsules.  It placed its first order with Boeing in May.  

NASA remains hopeful that the first commercial crew flights can take place by the end of 2017, while insisting that Congress must provide full funding for the program in FY2016 to make that happen.  NASA requested $1.244 billion.  The House-passed Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill provided $1.000 billion and the companion bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee provides $900 million.  Both amounts are higher than what was provided for FY2015, though less than the request.   Congress and the Obama Administration recently agreed on a revised budget plan for FY2016 and FY2017 that could mean more money for NASA, but negotiations are still underway.

NASA asserts that the commercial crew launches will cost less than what it pays Russia for flights on Soyuz, but that is on a per-seat basis.  SpaceX’s capsule theoretically can accommodate seven people, for example, but NASA must pay for the entire capsule even though it plans to fill only four of those seats.  Cargo will fill any remaining volume. Soyuz seats currently cost about $75 million each.  NASA’s Office of Inspector General said in a 2014 report that the commercial crew program’s “independent government cost estimates project significantly higher costs” for commercial crew.

Cost is only one factor in the Obama Administration’s 2010 decision to direct NASA to facilitate the development of at least two U.S. commercial crew systems through public-private partnerships (PPPs).  Another major objective is ending U.S. reliance on Russia for access to the ISS.  As Members of Congress and NASA often say, they want to be able to launch American astronauts from American soil on American rockets.  NASA has not had the ability to launch people into space since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  

Under the commercial crew PPP, NASA and the companies share the development costs and the government guarantees a certain market for the resulting services.   NASA officials have publicly acknowledged that NASA is paying 80-90 percent of the development costs, but argue that it is still much less than what the government would have paid using traditional procurement mechanisms.

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