The United States is finally getting back into manned spaceflight as NASA has announced the next step in its Commercial Crew Program. After years of testing and reviews, Boeing and SpaceX have both been awarded contracts to ferry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS), which will save NASA from paying by the seat for space on Russian rockets. According to NASA, contracting with the private sector to reach low-Earth orbit frees its resources up for more daunting tasks, like reaching Mars and the outer solar system.
Early reports that claimed Boeing had beaten out SpaceX for the Commercial Crew contract might have been overstating things a bit. It is true that Boeing is receiving the lion’s share of the manned transport contracts with $4.2 billion. However, SpaceX gets a $2.6 billion share of the contract, which is nothing to sneeze at. Both awards call upon SpaceX and Boeing to complete a test flight of their manned capsules to the ISS by 2017.
The US has been without manned launch capabilities since the end of the Shuttle programin 2011. Russia charges about $70 million for each seat on a Soyuz rocket, so NASA is understandably anxious to get the Commercial Crew Program off the ground. Both space firms are in a good position to get their spacecraft up and running on time. Boeing has thousands of aerospace employees working on its CST-100 capsule and has built almost every US manned spacecraft in history. SpaceX has been working toward this goal since the beginning. Its Dragon capsule, which is currently contracted to make supply runs to the space station, serves as the base of the manned Dragon V2.
Boeing just officially unveiled the CST-100 in May of this year. The capsule can carry seven astronauts in a small space, but the use of large windows in the weldless frame make it feel less cramped. The instrument panels of old have been replaced with an array of LCD touchscreens in the CST-100, and it’s topped off with gentle blue light to make the space feel less sterile.
The remaining challenge for Boeing is getting its capsule on the launchpad. Boeing expects to use an Atlas V rocket, but will work with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to design an engine for it that can be made in America rather than Russia. The launch aspect is of less concern for SpaceX, which already has its own advanced space launch platform known as the Falcon 9. SpaceX has even been testing a reusable version of the Falcon 9 capable ofvertical takeoffs and landings.
The Dragon V2 capsule, which also seats seven, is intended to be reusable as well. The cargo version of Dragon is equipped only with weak maneuvering thrusters for use in orbit. The manned version will have eight SuperDraco rocket engines with enough thrust to land the Dragon V2 anywhere on Earth with the accuracy of a helicopter.
Just looking at what has been accomplished so far, it certainly seems like SpaceX is in a better position to do what NASA wants, so why did Boeing get more support from the contract? Even though SpaceX is working on a lot of exciting new technologies and has its own rocket ready to go, Boeing has the experience. It’s a much safer choice — even if it doesn’t deliver the cheapest or flashiest solution, the consensus is that it’s more likely to deliver something that works well. SpaceX is still very much a startup… a startup with its own spaceships, but still a startup.
Whatever happens with the NASA contract, this will probably spur big changes in private spaceflight. SpaceX and Boeing have talked about the possibility of doing manned missions for foreign governments, scientists, and anyone with the cash to buy a seat.Source: Ryan Whitwam