NASA signs first contracts with SpaceX

Manned commercial space flight took a giant leap forward as Nasa signed its first mission orders with California-based private spaceflight company SpaceX to transport astronauts to the International Space Station.

SpaceX joins Boeing, which signed a similar contract with the space agency in May, in planning for the first private manned launches to the station, provisionally scheduled to take place towards the end of 2017. But before they do, both companies will have to pass a stringent certification process for both their hardware and their astronauts, Tabatha Thomson, public affairs officer at Nasa, said.

Officially ordered a crew rotation mission from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, due to launch sometime in 2017. This is actually the second mission order to come out of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program — the first order being awarded to Boeing back in May — but it’s still not clearwhich commercial outfit will have the honor of playing taxi for astronauts first.

The missions will not take place until Nasa verifies the safety of the equipment and crew. The flights, assuming they pass the certification, will take place on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

It has not yet been determined what specific missions the astronauts will be doing on the flight. But when SpaceX and Boeing successfully pass their certification tests, Thomson said, it will allow Nasa to to concentrate on “long-duration space flight”.

The cost of contracting out low-orbit manned operations to commercial operations like Boeing and SpaceX is considerably less than what Nasa currently pays the Russian Federal Space Agency for use of their Soyuz vehicle – their only option since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011.

SpaceX, which was founded by Tesla owner and PayPal billionaire Elon Musk, already flies unmanned supply missions to the ISS since it was contracted in 2006, using its Falcon launch vehicle.

Either way, NASA is looking forward to working with both firms, and says that the secommercial launches will significantly reduce the cost of transporting astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station. NASA, SpaceX and Boeing still need to go through test flights, safety checks and review, but the orders represent a major step forward in freeing the US space program from its dependency on Russia.

“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,” said Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, in a statement.

“When Crew Dragon takes Nasa astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for Nasa and our country.”

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