(ORDO NEWS) — On November 15, 2020, NASA and SpaceX made US history when a crewed spacecraft – Crew Dragon Resilience – launched from American soil and delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
This mission (designated Crew-1) was the culminating achievement of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and effectively restored U.S. domestic launch capability for the first time since the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle in 2011.
As of April, SpaceX’s launch vehicles and spacecraft have been used for the first private flight of Axiom Mission-1 and the fourth flight of the same program (Crew-4).
Building on this success, NASA recently filed a Notice of Intent (NOI) to acquire five more Crew Dragon spacecraft. The decision is largely based on delays experienced by Boeing – NASA’s other commercial partner in the Commercial Crew Program – and the development of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.
But perhaps the most important thing about this document is that it reaffirms NASA’s commitment to powering the ISS until 2030. After Russia’s recent withdrawal from the ISS program, the future of the station has become somewhat uncertain.
The NOI was filed on June 1, 2022 at 10:09 PM UTC on behalf of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. According to the notice, NASA will purchase five additional CTS transport systems under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract it signed with SpaceX.
The purpose of this purchase, the release says, is to enable NASA to maintain crew rotation on board the ISS and continue to meet its obligations to international partners, which is in line with the NASA Authority Act of 2015. It says the following:
“It is the policy of the United States to maintain an uninterrupted capability for manned spaceflight and operations in low Earth orbit and beyond as an essential tool of national security and as an opportunity to ensure the continuing involvement and restoration of United States leadership in the exploration and use of space…”.
“The transfer of five additional spacecraft to SpaceX will provide redundancy and spare capacity until 2030, which is important for the following reasons: (1) the obligation to ensure continuous flight for the safe operation of the ISS; (2) the possibility of anomalies or accidents; (3) the possibility of unforeseen external factors ; and (4) the risks involved in developing a safe and reliable CTS.”
NASA’s decision to extend the obligation to operate the ISS until 2030 was officially announced in December 2021.
However, the fate of the ISS became a matter of concern in February this year after Russia launched a special military operation in Ukraine. In response, the US, EU and other partner countries of the ISS imposed sanctions against Russia and suspended cooperation with its Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos).
According to the notice, NASA’s decision was also motivated by concerns about the development of CTS vehicles by both commercial crew contracted companies Boeing and SpaceX. While SpaceX was able to successfully test from the ISS uncrewed (Demo-1) and with crewed (Demo-2) between March 2019 and May 2020, Boeing’s Starliner was unable to reach the ISS due to a technical error.
On May 20, 2022, the Starliner nevertheless successfully launched and docked with the ISS (and has since returned back).
However, NASA does not currently have full confidence that Boeing will be able to validate Starliner and fulfill its obligations under the contract in the near future. These delays underscore the need for standby spacecraft to ensure the smooth delivery of replacement crews to the ISS.
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