According to an announcement made by NASA, contracts worth billions of dollars to build space capsules to carry Americans astronauts to the International Space Station have been awarded to Boeing and the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, better known as SpaceX. The initial flights under the new contracts are projected to launch in 2017.
In recent years, NASA has turned to private companies to create the items needed for its human spaceflight program. After the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011, American astronauts traveling to the International Space Station have had to leave U.S. soil and ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach their destination.
Russia was charging the United States $70 million per seat for flights to the International Space Station. Russia’s recent actions in Eastern Europe, notably in Ukraine, and the country’s sheltering of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have strained the relations between Russia and the United States, making the current arrangement untenable.
A $4.2 billion contract was awarded to Boeing to finish development of its CST-100 space capsule. Boeing’s space capsule is designed to carry up to five people and is launched by an Atlas 5 rocket. SpaceX received a contract for $2.6 billion to finish development of its Dragon 2 capsule. The capsule from SpaceX is launched using a Falcon 9 rocket, which is less expensive than the Atlas 5 rocket used by Boeing. SpaceX is already using a different design of the capsule to ferry cargo to the International Space Station when needed.
The fulfillment of the contracts will be a lengthy process for the companies. The new space capsules will have to meet NASA’s certification requirements for performance and safety before they can be launched with a crew. Once the development of the space capsules has been completed and certification has been received, a test flight will be conducted using at least one NASA astronaut as a member of the crew.
The space capsules from each company must fly on at least six missions for the companies to receive the full value of their awarded contracts. NASA has promised at least two missions for each company after their capsule has received certification.
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