Science

NASA says SpaceX is the only provider so far capable of providing taxi rides for astronauts

SpaceX is the only American company at the moment capable of sending astronauts to the International Space Station, NASA said in granting the company additional flights.

The Hawthorne, California-based company received a single source modification to the existing contract between NASA and SpaceX. The modification will allow the agency to acquire up to three additional flights to the International Space Station using its Crew Dragon system; These would follow the six manned flights already arranged.

NASA solicited other companies before awarding the contract, requesting any other offers for astronaut taxi rides in October. But SpaceX remains the only company currently capable of delivering the service under its Commercial Crew Transport Capabilities (CCtCap) contract, first awarded in 2014.

In Photos: SpaceX Astronaut Crew-3 Launch for NASA

“SpaceX’s crew transportation system is the only one certified to meet NASA’s safety requirements for transporting the crew to the space station and to maintain the agency’s obligation to its international partners in the required time frame,” NASA said in a statement on December 3.

Another shot from Flight Crew-2 on November 8, 2021.

The International Space Station as seen by the SpaceX Crew-2 mission on November 8, 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

The agency is working to send larger crews to the space station to boost its science and make the facility attractive to commercial companies, such as Axiom Space, which will launch the first fully private mission to the complex in early 2022.

NASA used to send astronauts on the space shuttle, but withdrew the program in 2011 after 30 years of service. The agency then spent several years helping American companies develop replacement commercial crew vehicles before awarding SpaceX and Boeing transportation contracts in 2014 (meanwhile, NASA astronauts flew in Russian Soyuz capsules, paid for by the seat ).

Although SpaceX sent the first manned spacecraft to the ISS in 2020, Boeing’s Starliner is not yet ready to fly. Starliner had a difficult unmanned test flight in December 2019 that failed to reach the orbital complex due to a series of failures. Boeing’s attempt to conduct a second unmanned test flight in 2021 was derailed by problems with an oxidizing valve, sidelining the system until at least 2022.

So NASA awarded the new contract, which is expected to take effect in 2023, to SpaceX, allowing the agency to turn its attention back to helping Boeing with flight certification, the statement said.

From left to right, the crew members of Expedition 66 Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos;  Thomas Marshburn of NASA;  Anton Shkaplerov from Roscosmos;  Raja Chari, Mark Vande Hei, and Kayla Barron, all from NASA;  and Matthias Maurer from ESA (European Space Agency)

The ISS is hosting larger crews these days. From left to right, the crew members of Expedition 66 Pyotr Dubrov of Roscosmos; Thomas Marshburn of NASA; Anton Shkaplerov from Roscosmos; Raja Chari, Mark Vande Hei, and Kayla Barron, all from NASA; and Matthias Maurer from ESA (European Space Agency). (Image credit: NASA)

NASA’s eventual plan is to alternate flights between the SpaceX and Boeing systems once Boeing is ready, the agency said, and it is poised to add more spacecraft systems as the need expands.

Commercial service to the ISS will likely expand rapidly in the coming years as the complex rotates to allow more companies on board to conduct experiments and research. SpaceX and Boeing may also be used for future space stations; Last week, NASA unveiled a set of early-stage commercial designs that it hopes will be ready to replace the ISS in 2030.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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