In a major step forward for crewed commercial spaceflight, NASA has contracted private rocket company SpaceX to blast astronauts off US soil beginning in 2017.
It's the second in a series of four crew mission orders NASA is expected to make under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts, which the space agency says will reduce the cost of sending US astronauts to the ISS. (Right now, we buy our astronauts a ticket with Russia.) SpaceX joins Boeing, which received a similar contract in May.
"The authority to proceed with Dragon's first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team," SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in a statement.
Indeed, closing this deal with NASA is probably a big relief for the commercial spaceflight company, which has spent the last few months reeling from a rocket explosion in June — the first botched launch in its history. That mishap, caused by a single faulty strut in the rocket's second stage, resulted in the loss of 1814kg of ISS-bound food, water and scientific equipment.
SpaceX hasn't had a launch since, although the company's planning to launch eleven miniature relay satellites later this year.
The contract, which includes anywhere from two to six missions, is a strong vote of confidence from NASA in spite of recent events. But before SpaceX or Boeing flies anyone, both companies will have to complete a rigorous certification process. Assuming all goes well, SpaceX is expected to send up its first astronauts in a Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket in late 2017.