NASA said this week that it plans to purchase five additional Crew Dragon missions from SpaceX to carry astronauts to the International Space Station.
Although the space agency’s news release does not specifically say so, these may be the final flights NASA needs to keep the space station fully occupied into the year 2030. Although there is currently no international agreement to keep it flying, this procurement signals that the space agency believes the orbital outpost will continue to fly for as long as possible.
The announcement also suggests that SpaceX will fly more than twice as many crews to the space station than the other partner in NASA’s commercial crew program, Boeing. Under the new agreement, SpaceX would fly 14 crewed missions to the station on Crew Dragon, and Boeing would fly six during the lifetime of the station.
Let’s run down the math on that. SpaceX has already launched four operational crew missions to the space station, dating to the November 15, 2020, launch of the Crew-1 mission. SpaceX currently has two additional flights under its original NASA crew contract. In February 2022, NASA awarded fixed-price contracts for the Crew-7, Crew-8, and Crew-9 missions to SpaceX. The latest announcement would bring the total number of Crew Dragon missions to 14.
As for Boeing, it has yet to fly an operational mission to the station. The company recently completed a largely successful uncrewed test flight in May. Looking ahead, Boeing will probably complete a crewed flight test of Starliner late this year or early in 2023 and then fly its first operational mission sometime in 2023, or possibly later if issues are discovered on the crewed test flight.
“Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 went very well and we hope to be able to certify the Starliner system in the near future,” said Phil McAllister, director of commercial space at NASA, said in the agency’s news release. “However, SpaceX will require additional missions to help us implement our strategy of each commercial provider flying alternate missions once a year. “
NASA has yet to announce the purchase of additional Starliner missions. This is prudent as Boeing has not yet demonstrated Starliner’s capabilities onboard with crew. Based on this week’s announcements, however, it seems likely that Boeing will not be awarded any additional crewed missions.
Why? NASA plans to fly only two crewed space station missions per year with four astronauts. SpaceX would be contracted for 10 additional missions, and Boeing has six on the books. There are eight years of lifetime left in the space station if it stops flying in 2030. While additional modifications to these contracts are always possible, NASA appears to have booked all of the rides it needs for a station lifetime into 2030.
This does not necessarily mean that Starliner will fly just six crewed missions. Boeing indicated its intention to use the vehicle for private missions. This is likely to be commercial space stations in development. Boeing, for example, is a partner in Blue Origin’s “Orbital reef” space station project.
But it is worth noting that at present Starliner is only capable of flying on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Boeing has not been able to launch enough rockets to complete the six Starliner missions it had planned for NASA. To fly Starliner into orbit, Boeing will need to pay money to human-rate United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket or another vehicle. Boeing has not yet made clear its plans for Starliner’s post-Atlas V missions.