Crew Dragon approaching ISS
Future private astronaut missions to the International Space Station, flying on vehicles like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon (above), will be charged higher prices by NASA to reflect the true cost of supporting those visits. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA is beginning the process to procure more commercial crew flights as it looks to extend the International Space Station through the end of the decade, including the opportunity for new entrants to join the program.

NASA issued a request for information (RFI) Oct. 20 seeking information from industry on their ability to transport astronauts to and from the station. Responses to the agency are due on Nov. 19.

NASA awarded Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, contracts to Boeing and SpaceX in 2014. Those contracts covered final development and certification of their commercial crew vehicles as well as up to six “post-certification” or operational missions to the station.

Boeing’s first post-certification mission is unlikely before 2023 because of continued issues with the development of its CST-100 Starliner vehicle, pushing back a second uncrewed test flight to the first half of 2022 and a crewed test flight to late 2022. SpaceX, though, will launch its third Crew Dragon post-certification mission, Crew-3, Oct. 31, and NASA is planning for the Crew-4 and Crew-5 missions in 2022.

During an Oct. 19 call with reporters about the status of Starliner, Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager, said NASA was starting to consider its plans for acquiring additional commercial crew flights, given that both SpaceX was nearing the end of its CCtCap contract and the agency’s desire to operate the station through the end of the decade.

Boeing has been authority to proceed for three of its six flights, while SpaceX has been given similar permission for five of its six. “We’re in the process of going through those contract actions and figuring out how to add additional flights, likely to both contracts, at some point,” he said.

In the request for information, NASA left open how it would procure those additional seats. While NASA has acquired full missions so far from Boeing and SpaceX, it said it could purchase single or multiple seats on a mission with non-NASA customers on it as well.

“Commercial crew transportation services are going to be needed into the foreseeable future, and we want to maintain competition, provide assured access to space on U.S. human launch systems and continue to enable a low Earth orbit economy,” Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement accompanying the RFI.

That includes the option to select companies other than Boeing and SpaceX. NASA said it was looking for information on both existing certified vehicles and “estimated timelines on the availability of future systems capable of accomplishing certification no later than 2027.”

That could leave the door open for Sierra Space, the space division spun off from Sierra Nevada Corporation. It competed for a CCtCap contract in 2014, offering its Dream Chaser lifting body vehicle. It lost to Boeing and SpaceX and then filed a protest to the Government Accountability Office, only to have the GAO reject the protest.

Sierra Nevada later won a NASA Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract for transporting cargo to and from the station using a cargo version of Dream Chaser. Company executives, though, have said several times they are still interested in eventually pursuing a crewed version of that spacecraft.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...