JOHNSON SPACE CENTER — Boeing and SpaceX will share the responsibilities to take astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA officials announced Tuesday.
Boeing’s CST-100 capsule and SpaceX’s Dragon V2 spacecraft are scheduled to start sending crews to the station in 2017. The announcement marks NASA’s first steps in relying on commercial space companies to take astronauts to low-earth orbit.
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program, NASA has relied on Russia to take crews to the space station. The U.S. space program was paying the Russia about $70 million per astronaut, officials said.
Under the contracts, Boeing and SpaceX will each handle up to six missions. The $6.8 billion contracts also require each company to meet NASA certification and develop and launch a demonstration flight that will have a NASA astronaut on board.
Boeing’s contract is about $4.2 billion and SpaceX will be $2.6 billion. While different in amounts, the terms of the contracts are the same, said Kathy Lueders, manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Former mission control worker, space author and NBC News space consultant James Oberg said the announcement opens the doors to missions beyond trips to the space station.
“This promises to offer much broader access to low-earth orbit,” he said. “I see what they are doing as similar to the federally funded air cargo service in the 1920s. The government was the anchor customer, but eventually it just took off.”
Oberg said he sees NASA’s approach in a similar way.
“By developing a fleet of two different kinds of spacecraft there will be many more destinations than the space station,” he said.
He said there are companies that want to do business in space that have waited to have an option when it comes to launches to low-earth as well as suborbital flights.
He said the company left out of the contracts, Sierra Nevada, could see funding come from a third party or even another country.
A coalition of space contractors and supporters of manned space flight applauded NASA’s announcement as the first step in exploration beyond low-earth orbit.
“(This) will allow NASA to place even more focus on addressing the unique challenges of deep space exploration,” the Coalition for Space Exploration said in a statement. “NASA’s efforts aboard the station in low Earth orbit are demonstrating capabilities needed for deep space exploration, fostering ground breaking research to improve life on Earth.”
Jobs stay here
Boeing’s contract in particular was good news for local economic development officials. Much of the company’s design work for the CST-100 has been done in the Johnson Space Center area.
“Boeing is one of our biggest employers in the region,” Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership said. “So from that standpoint, (the announcement) is big.”
Had Boeing not been among the companies awarded the contract, there was a good chance that several hundred people would be looking for work.
“That would have been a significant number of people to lose from a community,” Mitchell said.
More importantly, Mitchell said, Boeing’s involvement means that the collective “brain power” of engineers and designers will remain in this region.
“This announcement maintains Houston as the center for human space exploration,” Mitchell said.
Oberg agreed with Mitchell on that point.
“Anything that makes human space flight more accessible is going to benefit the Houston community,” Oberg said. “This (area) remains the cultural capital of human space flight. With this, people just won’t come here for our museums and past glories, they will come here because future projects will take off.”
Congressional support needed
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned that meeting the timeline for launches by 2017 would require Congress providing “full funding” that the space agency is requesting in its budget.
The chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said using commercial partners is a better use of tax dollars.
“I look forward to the time when we once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Smith said. “The days of paying Russians $70 million per astronaut for access to the International Space Station must come to an end as soon as possible.
“I look forward to working with these companies and NASA to end our reliance on foreign carriers by ensuring safe, reliable, timely and cost-effective transportation to the International Space Station.”
With the announcement, NASA has shifted all of its space station-related transportation efforts to commercial partners. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have been handling the transport of cargo to and from the space station.
Contact Mainland Editor T.J. Aulds at 409-683-5334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.