The first crewed commercial space launch is set for 2017
In 2017, American astronauts will once again be carried into space in American spacecrafts – albeit commercially owned and operated ones.
Boeing, NASA, and SpaceX have confirmed that the first crewed tests flights using Boeing’s CST-100, and SpaceX’s Dragon capsule are both expected to carry astronauts into space at some point in 2017. They will ferry those astronauts to the International Space Station, opening up a new stage in space travel and exploration.
The announcement came at a joint news conference earlier this week, according to Universe Today. Both commercial companies will launch a test flight with a mixed crew of two NASA astronauts and two company test pilots.
It will mark the first crewed, American operated spacecraft launched since the space shuttle program came to an end with the Atlantis STS-135 mission, which launched on July 8, 2011.
The Commercial Crew Program
The flights will be conducted under the supervision of NASA as part of its Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which began in 2010 with the goal of developing a safe, reliable, cost-effective means of conveying astronauts to the ISS. That had the added benefit of breaking the monopoly Russia has on space travel.
“We have been working overtime to get Americans back to space from US soil and end US reliance on Russia,” NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said. “My job is to ensure we get Americans back to space as soon as possible and safely.”
“We have been in-sourcing space jobs back to the US.”
When the Boeing and SpaceX modules launch, they will both do so from Cape Canaveral.
The average cost to fly an American astronaut to the ISS using the Russian Roscomos space service is $70 million per astronaut, per mission. Using the CST-100 or the Dragon spacecrafts, the cost drops to $56 million. Not only is that a fairly significant savings (relatively speaking), the money being spent would go back into the American economy.
“I don’t ever want to have to write another check to Roscosmos after 2017, hopefully,” Bolden stated.
Ironically, the commercial test flights were originally meant to take place in 2015, but budget cuts to NASA delayed the program by two years. By supposedly saving money in the budget, NASA has – and will – pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the Russians until the CSS spacecraft are ready to go.
“Congress has started to understand the critical importance of commercial crew and cargo. They’ve seen, as a result of the performance of our providers, that this is not a hoax, it’s not a myth, it’s not a dream,” Bolden said.
“It’s something that’s really happening. I am optimistic that the Congress will accept the President’s proposal for commercial crew for 2016.”
Step by step
Boeing’s CTS-100 is planning a pad abort test in February 2017. If all goes well, an uncrewed orbital flight will then occur in April 2017, followed by a crewed flight to the ISS in July 2017 – assuming everything goes well. There’s nothing to suggest there are any major hurdles in the way, but the recent fatal accident of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is evidence of the dangerous nature of space flight.
SpaceX is currently in the middle of its uncrewed cargo runs to the ISS, and it is scheduled for a pad abort test at some point within the next two months. An uncrewed flight is planned for late 2016, followed in 2017 by a crewed test flight.
During those upcoming tests, SpaceX will also continue working on the Falcon 9 rocket, which it is attempting to land on a floating platform after use. The first attempt ended with an explosion, but the test was considered 50/50 at best, and there was never any danger of loss of life.
With the progress of the commercial space flights, NASA is hoping that the 2016 budget will be more favorable. It will seek an increase for the budget of the CSS, which in turn NASA hopes will pave the way for a manned mission to Mars.
“This and the ISS are a springboard to going beyond Earth,” Bolden said. “All this we are doing will enable us to get Humans to Mars!”