As of right now there’s only one way to get humans into space: on board a Russian Soyuz craft. It’s an incredibly reliable spacecraft, and probably one of the longest serving spacecraft ever, however it’s ability to only send up 3 astronauts at a time does limit it’s capabilities. Couple that with the fact that the going rate for a seat on one of them is about $70 million you can imagine why there’s an imperative on NASA to find another way to get themselves up there. Whilst there’s been a lot of internal work to develop the next generation of crew transportation NASA has realised that the private space industry will very soon have that capability. To that effect they created the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCTCap) award, a $6.8 billion dollar contract to provide crew transportation services.
Today they announced the winners: SpaceX and Boeing.
The contract split gives $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing. Considering NASA’s long relationship with Boeing it’s not surprising that they got a larger chunk of the pie (and the fact that they’ve already sunk about half a billion into the program already) however I’m sure SpaceX won’t be unhappy with that much business coming their way. Both companies are already well underway with their respective crew transports, Boeing with the CST-100 and SpaceX with the Dragon, which is likely why they were chosen in the first place. This program won’t replace the work that’s currently being done by NASA with the Orion capsule (under contract with Lockheed Martin) and will instead function as a supplement to that capability.
Being awarded work under CCTCap isn’t all roses however as NASA is looking to have at least one of the capsules up and running by 2017. That largely lines up with the timelines that SpaceX has for their Dragon capsule, with the first flights scheduled for late next year with crewed missions to follow shortly after. As to how that fits with the current CST-100 schedule is less clear as whilst there’s been some mockup tests done a couple years ago I haven’t seen much progress on it since. Boeing isn’t the same kind of company that SpaceX is though so there’s every possibility that the CST-100 is just as far along its development pipeline as the Dragon is. Still the CCTCap only calls for one of them to be ready by that time and if I was a betting man my money would be on SpaceX.
Both company’s solutions are of the reusable capsule variety which might seem a step backwards but it’s actually the smarter way to do space travel, especially if cost is a primary factor. The Space Shuttle, whilst iconic in its shape and unmatched in its capabilities, was a compromise between far too many objectives that were at odds with each other. If you’re goal is just getting people up and down then capsules are the way to go. It will be interesting to see if the economies of scale kick in with these craft as the Dragon is designed to be launched many times per year and the CST-100 can be reused up to 10 times before it needs a full teardown.
Needless to say this is an incredibly exciting announcement. I’ve long been of the mind that NASA should leave things like this to the private companies who can deliver the same service at a much better price without compromising on saftey. That then leaves them free to do the big picture stuff that will inspire the next generation, the kinds of things that we all remember the NASA name for. The CCTCap is the first step towards them rekindling that spirit and, as an avid space geek, that makes me so wonderfully happy.