NASA is intending to buy five more Crew Dragon trips to the International Space Station from SpaceX, citing the necessity for long-term access to the station as a reason. NASA disclosed its desire to issue a sole-source update to its current Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities, or CCtCap, contract with SpaceX to add five flights to the station later this decade in a procurement notice released on June 1.
NASA said it needed to add the missions to the contract for a variety of reasons, including delays in the development and certification of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew vehicle, projections of when the additional missions would be needed, and “the technical challenges associated with establishing and maintaining” crew transportation systems capable of flying every six months, according to the filing.
The extra trips will “provide redundancy and backup capabilities for the ISS until 2030,” according to the notification. The White House stated at the end of last year that the ISS will be extended until 2030, an extension that was backed by all other station participants except Russia. NASA officials claimed in a blog post released late June 1 without fanfare that the extra flights would allow them to put Starliner into operation without hurrying it.
“It’s vital that we finish Starliner development without putting excessive strain on the timetable while also working to position both Boeing and SpaceX for long-term operations,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager. “Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 went extremely well, and we expect to be able to certify the Starliner system in the near future,” said NASA’s commercial space director, Phil McAlister. “However, further flights from SpaceX will be required to achieve our objective of having each commercial provider fly alternate missions once a year.”
In 2014, the CCtCap awarded Boeing and SpaceX six operational, or post-certification, flights apiece. Because the Starliner is still under testing, Boeing has yet to conduct any post-certification missions. Crew-4, SpaceX’s fourth post-certification mission, launched to the International Space Station in April.
NASA approved SpaceX for three more flights in February for $776 million, assuming that SpaceX would finish all six missions quickly while Starliner was still under construction. If approved, the additional amendment would increase SpaceX’s total number of post-certification flights to 14.
Boeing’s Starliner should be in operation by the time SpaceX begins flying those extra flights. Following the completion of the OFT-2 uncrewed test flight on May 25, NASA and Boeing’s officials said that they expected to be able to conduct a crewed test flight as early as late this year. If all goes well, Starliner may start post-certification trips as early as the autumn of 2023, after SpaceX’s Crew-6 mission, which is scheduled to fly in the spring.
Boeing’s existing contract would enable flights to launch until 2028 if that timeline continues and NASA is able to rotate missions between the two firms. SpaceX’s contract extension would enable flights to continue until 2030, with SpaceX returning to two missions a year after Boeing’s contract ends.
The extension that is scheduled to be given to SpaceX, according to a statement released by NASA, “does not prohibit NASA from pursuing more contract modifications in the future for additional transportation services as required.” An extension for Boeing would almost certainly need the approval of a new launch vehicle, since its current Starliner flights are scheduled to fly on the Atlas 5, a vehicle that United Launch Alliance is no longer selling and expects to retire, most likely with the last Starliner mission.