American space agency Nasa has taken a major step towards regaining the capability to launch human crews to the International Space Station by issuing a task order to Boeing to perform its first manned mission in 2017.
Although Boeing has been the first of the two companies developing crew-transportation capabilities for Nasa to receive the order, its rival SpaceX could eventually fly first as the exact order of the flights will only be determined at a later stage.
SpaceX, which successfully performed a crew abort test earlier this month, expects to receive its order by the end of this year.
Both firms are developing space capsules capable of carrying astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Development Programme.
Nasa agreed to place the orders ahead of the certification if certain readiness conditions were met.
"Final development and certification are top priority for Nasa and our commercial providers, but having an eye on the future is equally important to the commercial crew and station programs," said Kathy Lueders, manager of Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program. "Our strategy will result in safe, reliable and cost-effective crew missions."
Boeing’s crew transportation system, including the CST-100 spacecraft, has advanced through various commercial crew development and certification phases. Recently, Boeing completed the delta integrated critical design review, the fourth milestone in the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the programme, demonstrating the transportation system has reached design maturity appropriate to proceed with assembly, integration and test activities.
"We’re on track to fly in 2017, and this critical milestone moves us another step closer in fully maturing the CST-100 design," said John Mulholland, Boeing’s vice president of Commercial Programs. "Our integrated and measured approach to spacecraft design ensures quality performance, technical excellence and early risk mitigation."
Orders under the CCtCap contracts are made two to three years prior to the missions to provide time for each company to manufacture and assemble the launch vehicle and spacecraft. In addition, each company must successfully complete the certification process before Nasa will give the final approval for flight. If Nasa does not receive the full requested funding for CCtCap in fiscal year 2016 and beyond, it will have to delay future milestones for both partners proportionally, which would in turn prolong its dependence on Russian services.
“Commercial Crew launches are critical to the International Space Station Program because it ensures multiple ways of getting crews to orbit,” said Julie Robinson, International Space Station chief scientist. “It also will give us crew return capability so we can increase the crew to seven, letting us complete a backlog of hands-on critical research that has been building up due to heavy demand for the National Laboratory.”
Contracting private companies to build a space taxi for the space station has freed Nasa’s hands and resources to focus on development of technology for a possible future mission to Mars.
SpaceX and Beoing were selected by Nasa to build the next US low Earth orbit passenger spacecraft in September 2014.
As part of the contract with Nasa, Boeing is guaranteed at least two and potentially six service flights after completing certification.