There’s a new space race happening, much smaller in scope than the great US/USSR rivalry of the ‘60s, but one that still marks a huge milestone: the race to see who will be the first to launch a commercial crewed spacecraft. The race is now official as NASA has ordered a crewed mission from SpaceX as well as Boeing.
In the history of crewed space flight, no private concern has ever launched a spacecraft of their own design with actual people in it — well, at least not to orbit — Virgin Galactic has done their sub-orbital parabolic flights. But now NASA has contracts with two providers — SpaceX and Boeing — and actual missions for both those spacecraft.
SpaceX’s capsule is known as the Crew Dragon (or Dragon V2), and is based on their existing — and proven — Dragon cargo vehicle. Boeing’s spacecraft (built in collaboration with Bigelow Aerospace) is also an Apollo-like capsule design, and is known as the Starliner (formerly the less catchy CST-100). Interestingly, the Starliner is being designed to be able to be launched on (among other launchers) SpaceX’s Falcon9 launch vehicle, which shows that there must be some real standards being set for all the commercial crewed vehicles.
Both are capsule designs, and both are designed solely as space taxis, ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS, which leaves NASA’s new spacecraft, Orion, free to focus on the core NASA mission of exploration, and, as such, Orion is designed to be able to conduct missions beyond earth orbit.
So, even if all three new players in space travel look somewhat similar, there’s significant differences in role and capability.
Even though Boeing received their mission order six months ago, the chronically underfunded Commercial Crew Program has set no specific dates for when the missions will happen. Initially, plans were for 2017, but a push to 2018 is not unlikely. There is no decision yet as to which mission will go first — the Dragon or Starliner one — so we have an actual race on our hands here for first commercial crewed mission.
Of course, it’s a race that will likely be decided more on budgets and logistics and schedules as opposed to two teams feverishly building spaceships, but it’s enough of a race for me.
Personally, I’m happy to see the United States have another option to get to space other than buying seats on the evergreen Soyuzes, which, at $80 million a pop, are not cheap. Commercial space taxi service has been long overdue, and it’s great to see space travel advance to where this can become a for-profit business, and NASA can get out of the space taxi/trucking business and get back to exploration.
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