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Examining the Benefits of Commercial Crew Transport in Low Earth Orbit

NASA astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr. and European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang participate in an extravehicular activity (EVA) on the ISS.

Photo Credit: NASA

Affordability, flexibility, and expansion into deep space: NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is poised to support the agency in multiple ways.

In September 2014, NASA announced that it had selected Boeing Space Exploration (Boeing) and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) as partners in developing private industry capabilities for crew transport in low Earth orbit. More recently, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden joined Boeing Vice President and General Manager John Elbon and SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell, along with NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders and NASA astronaut and Commercial Crew Program Liaison Mike Finke, to talk about the progress of the partnerships.

“We’ve been working overtime to return space launches to U.S. soil and end our sole reliance on the Russians to get to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Bolden. “These American companies, who are pioneers and trailblazers in their own right, are developing new systems to take our astronauts…to low Earth orbit. It’s an incredible testament to American ingenuity and know-how, and an extraordinary validation of the vision we laid out just a few years ago as we prepared for the long-planned retirement of the space shuttle.”

Under their contracts with NASA, Boeing and SpaceX will each develop the systems to send crew to the ISS for a minimum of two missions and a maximum of six.

Boeing is developing the CST-100, a spacecraft capable of carrying four astronauts and being reused 10 times. Its first flights are planned for 2017. After a launch pad abort test in February, the first uncrewed test flight to the ISS will take place two months later, followed by a crewed test flight in July. If all goes as planned, the spacecraft will then be certified by NASA and conduct its first operational mission in December 2017. Boeing has already completed the first two milestones toward certification: a Certification Baseline Review and Ground Segment Critical Design Review.

Elbon emphasized the importance of the partnership initiative. “Commercial crew is incredibly important to the space station. It’s important to reduce the cost of transportation to low Earth orbit so that NASA has within its budget the capability to develop means to explore beyond low Earth orbit. And, importantly, I think it’s beginning a whole new industry.”

SpaceX completed the Certification Baseline Review in December 2014 for its Dragon crew capsule, which is based on the Dragon cargo spacecraft that currently services the ISS. The company expects to perform a launch pad abort test at Cape Canaveral in March 2015, with an uncrewed test flight to the ISS planned for late 2016. The final test flight will follow in early 2017.

“Our crew Dragon leverages the cargo capability that we’ve been flying successfully to the International Space Station,” said Shotwell. “However, we understand, and we’ve been told, that crew is clearly different. So there are a number of upgrades that we’ve been working on for the past few years to ensure that this crew version of Dragon is as reliable as it could possibly be.”

The introduction of new systems for transporting crew to the ISS, Bolden said, will “spur economic growth, expand U.S. leadership in space, and make possible breakthroughs in science and technology. The contracts we’ve signed with our industry partners, Boeing and SpaceX, are vivid examples of American innovation at work. We’ve seen the return of an American launch industry and the insourcing of work and jobs back to U.S. shores.”

In addition, the ISS will benefit from the increased availability of crew. Once the industry partners are transporting astronauts to the ISS, the capacity for work within the orbiting laboratory will double. “While right now there’s about 40 hours a week that’s dedicated to science and research, after SpaceX and Boeing are flying our four crews, that amount can go up to 80 hours a week,” said Lueders.

Handing over crew transportation within low Earth orbit to the commercial sector will also enhance the affordability of space travel. NASA currently pays Roscosmos about $70 million for each seat on the Soyuz. With the commercial crew partnerships, the agency should be able to reduce that cost by more than $10 million. “When you look at the pricing for the missions across five years,” said Lueders, “we’re able to get an average seat cost of about $58 million.”

But the program’s advantages go far beyond low Earth orbit. “Although we’re talking about commercial crew today, I don’t want anybody to lose sight of the fact that all this we’re doing is so that it will enable us to eventually get humans to Mars,” said Bolden. “A reliance on a commercial space enterprise where we hand off low Earth orbit transportation to the private sector is critical to our journey to Mars. With our private sector partners carrying cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station, we can focus on testing the systems and technology needed for Orion and the Space Launch System to take us to the proving ground of cis-lunar space and on to Mars and beyond. Those parallel flight programs are intertwined and essential to all our work going forward.”

Everyone in the room agreed. “These next several years are full of hard work as well as excitement,” said Finke. “It’s a great time to be part of the American space program on our way to Mars.”

Read a previous APPEL News article about the selection of the commercial partners.

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