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 announced Dec. 3 its intent to purchase three more commercial crew missions from SpaceX as a hedge against further delays in the certification of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.

NASA issued a contract notification announcing its plans to issue a sole-source award to SpaceX for three missions. Those missions would be in addition to the six “post-certification missions,” or PCMs, that SpaceX won as part of its $2.6 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract in 2014. The announcement did not state the price of those three new missions.

SpaceX launched the third of those six original missions, Crew-3, to the International Space Station Nov. 10. It is scheduled to launch the Crew-4 mission in the spring of 2022, likely to be followed by Crew-5 in the fall of 2022.

NASA originally envisioned alternating missions between SpaceX and Boeing, assuming both companies’ vehicles would be certified around the same time. However, Boeing has yet to fly a crewed Starliner mission, and its second uncrewed test flight, OFT-2, has been delayed to some time in 2022.

“Due to technical issues and the resulting delays experienced by Boeing, it is expected that SpaceX will launch its last PCM in March 2023,” the procurement notice stated. “Awarding up to three additional PCMs to SpaceX will enable NASA to have redundant and back-up capabilities for each PCM.”

“It’s critical we begin to secure additional flights to the space station now so we are ready as these missions are needed to maintain a U.S. presence on station,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said in a statement accompanying the contract notification.

NASA officials said in October, at briefings about the Crew-3 mission, that they were in the early stages of planning commercial crew contract extensions. The agency issued a request for information Oct. 20 regarding opportunities for purchasing additional commercial crew services, including options for single or multiple seats on a commercial mission or a dedicated flight.

Neither NASA nor Boeing have provided an update since mid-October on progress with valve corrosion problems that scrubbed an OFT-2 launch attempt in early August and led to an extended delay for that mission. In that update, Boeing officials said they were looking at options to launch the mission some time in the first half of 2022, a schedule that would push back the first post-certification mission to 2023.

“NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner’s next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, said in the statement.

NASA said at that October Starliner briefing that the agency’s long-term plan remains to alternate between Crew Dragon and Starliner missions once Starliner is certified. “When we get into the long-term rotations, we would like to see SpaceX fly once a year and then Boeing fly one a year as well,” said Steve Stich, manager of the commercial crew program at NASA.

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...