NASA orders first manned Dragon mission

Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida undergoes modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets(Credit: NASA)

NASA has ordered the first mission by SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft to ferry astronauts from Cape Canaveral to the International Space Station. This is the second mission planned with a private company under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts, which guarantees at least four such orders with two companies. The launch is scheduled for late 2017.

The purpose of the still to be scheduled mission will be to re-establish the US capability to carry astronauts to the ISS without having to rely on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA says that this would not only restore the American manned spaceflight capability, but also save money and allow more time on the space station to be dedicated to science. During the mission, the Crew Dragon will carry up to four NASA or NASA-sponsored astronauts and about 220 lb (100 kg) of pressurized cargo to the ISS. The Dragon will then stay docked at the station for up to 210 days, where it will act as an emergency lifeboat before returning to Earth with a relieved crew.

Friday's announcement is the second such mission order placed by NASA. The first was offered in May to Boeing, which is developing its CST-100 Starliner. The contracts with SpaceX and Boeing guarantee at least two missions each and a maximum of six. Though neither company's spacecraft has yet been certified, NASA says that the CCtCap contracts need to give the operators two to three years of lead time for manufacturing and assembling the spacecraft and their launch vehicles.

Which company will actually fly the first mission to the ISS has yet to be determined. NASA says that this will depend on each company's state of readiness. SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket have already passed several development and certification milestones. However, funding for the program is still key to the mission timetable and a lack of money from Congress could see the 2017 launch date slip.

"It's really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions," says Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program."It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from US companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan."

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