NASA has awarded five bonus missions to SpaceX for crewed flights to the International Space Station. The $1.4 billion contract extension runs through 2030, when the orbital lab is scheduled to be retired.
The total value of the fixed-price contract is $1,436,438,446, or $2.9 million for each of the five newly booked flights, according to a NASA press release. The deal was signed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, and it will allow “NASA to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. capability for human access to the space station until 2030,” according to the space agency.
For its part of the deal, SpaceX will provide ground, launch, orbital, return, and recovery operations, in addition to providing the associated cargo trips to the ISS and lifeboat capabilities. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is currently the only U.S.-built human-rated orbital spacecraft currently in operation (NASA’s Orion spacecraft is also human-rated, but it’s designed for crewed trips to the Moon as part of the Artemis program).
NASA’s new contract with SpaceX raises the total missions for the Elon Musk-led company to 14, of which four have already been completed. The Crew-5 mission, which will include the first cosmonaut to ride aboard a Crew Dragon, is scheduled to launch on October 3. The newly contracted missions will include Crew-10 through to Crew-14. The total value of the NASA/SpaceX commercial crew partnership is now worth $4.93 billion. The newly signed contract doesn’t preclude additional SpaceX missions to the ISS or other contract modifications, NASA says.
The Commercial Crew program dates back to 2014, as NASA transitioned from the Space Shuttle program to commercial providers as a means for transporting astronauts to the ISS; during the interim period, NASA was forced to depend on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. So far, only SpaceX has lived up to the bargain; it’s been transporting astronauts to the orbital lab since 2020. Boeing, NASA’s other commercial crew partner, has struggled to get its CST-100 Starliner certified for human crews. The Starliner program has been marred with delays and technical problems, but a crewed demo mission could finally happen in February 2023.
In related news, NASA and Axiom Space have inked a deal that will see the second private astronaut mission to the ISS. Axiom Mission 2, or Ax-2, will take place during the second quarter of 2023, and it will involve four yet-to-be announced crew members—one of which must be a NASA astronaut who has previously flown to space, as per new space agency guidelines. The private crew will train for the mission with help from NASA, SpaceX, and international partners.
“Our new Ax-2 crew, together with a full mission manifest of science, outreach, and commercial activities, will continue to increase utilization of the International Space Station National Laboratory and demonstrate to the world the benefits of commercial space missions for all humanity,” Derek Hassmann, Axiom’s chief of mission integration and operations, said in a NASA statement.
Hopefully, Ax-2 will run smoother than Axiom’s original mission from earlier this year, in which the all-private crew bit off far more than they could chew, resulting in NASA’s insistence that an experienced astronaut serve as the spacecraft commander and that the crew receive extra training.