SpaceX is poised to launch astronauts into space this spring. Here's how SpaceX and Boeing became NASA's best shot at resurrecting American spaceflight.
- SpaceX completed an explosive test on Sunday that showed its Crew Dragon capsule can whisk astronauts to safety in the event of a rocket failure.
- The test was part of NASA's Commercial Crew program, a partnership between the space agency and private companies to build spaceships that can ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
- Since 2011, NASA has been buying seats for its astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The program is meant to end that practice.
- Boeing is also building a spaceship as part of the Commercial Crew program, but SpaceX is on track to launch astronauts first.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets on Sunday, only to watch it erupt in a ball of fire.
But the explosion was intentional and went exactly as planned. It was the final step in a long process of testing the company's Crew Dragon capsule - a spaceship designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Boeing has designed a similar spacecraft, and the two companies are racing to fly NASA astronauts on US-made spacecraft for the first time in nearly a decade.
Since NASA ended its space-shuttle program in 2011, the agency has relied exclusively on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from orbit in Soyuz spacecraft. But those seats have gotten increasingly expensive: A single round-trip seat now costs NASA about $85 million. So the space agency launched its Commercial Crew program to spur the development of new American-made spacecraft.
The program put private companies in competition for billions of dollars' worth of government contracts. SpaceX and Boeing came out on top.
SpaceX's latest test has teed Elon Musk's rocket company up to launch its first-ever human passengers this spring.
"This critical test puts us on the cusp of once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil," Jim Bridenstine, NASA's administrator, tweeted shortly after the mission.
Here's how SpaceX and Boeing became NASA's best shot at resurrecting American spaceflight.
Get the latest Boeing stock price here.
Atlantis, NASA's last space shuttle, launched and landed in July 2011. It was the last US rocket-and-spaceship system to carry astronauts to and from space.
Since then, NASA has relied on Russia's Soyuz system to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Russia has nearly quadrupled its prices for NASA over a decade.
Plus, after two recent incidents, concerns about the reliability and safety of Soyuz rockets are growing.
NASA established the Commercial Crew Program in 2010. The competition asked private companies to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.
From dozens of hopefuls, two contenders made it through the competition: SpaceX and Boeing.
SpaceX, which Musk founded in 2002, designed the Crew Dragon, a 14,000-pound spaceship that's made to be reusable.
Boeing, a century-old aerospace company, created the CST-100 Starliner, another reusable capsule. It's made to land back on Earth using airbags, rather than splashing into the ocean.
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will likely be the first to fly a commercial spacecraft: the Crew Dragon. Musk most recently said that mission — called Demo-2 — could launch in April, May, or June.
Musk recently shared an animation of what that first crewed SpaceX flight might look like.
In total, NASA has selected nine astronauts to fly the Boeing and SpaceX spaceships for the first time.
Before humans can fly in these spacecraft, though, NASA requires a series of test flights and demonstrations.
In one such test, the Crew Dragon flew to the space station in March 2019, making it the first commercial vehicle to ever do so.
After its five-day sojourn at the space station, the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.
"This is an amazing achievement in American history," Bridenstine said during a live broadcast after the landing.
But later trials hit snags. SpaceX did not pass an April 2019 test that simulated a parachute failure.
That same month, a Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a test-firing on the ground. NASA and SpaceX both welcomed the surprise failure.
Boeing launched its Starliner capsule toward the space station for the first time in December 2019.
But the Starliner suffered a major glitch with a clock about 31 minutes after launch, causing it to veer off-course.
On its early return to Earth, the capsule blew up impact-absorbing airbags and landed safely in the desert.
NASA may ask Boeing to re-do that uncrewed mission to the space station before it launches its first astronauts.
Before they ferry people, both spaceships also had to prove they can fly astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of a rocket-launch failure.
In November 2019, Boeing passed a ground test of the Starliner's abort system.
On Sunday, SpaceX demonstrated its own escape system by turning off one of its Falcon 9 rocket mid-flight with a Crew Dragon perched on top.
"As far as we can tell thus far, it was a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as one could possibly expect," Musk said during a NASA press briefing after the launch.
Though both companies are almost ready to launch astronauts, the Commercial Crew program has run years past its deadline.
"2020 is the year," Lueders told the Associated Press in December. "This is really the final trial of these vehicles."
Once testing is done, a round-trip seat on the Crew Dragon will cost about $55 million and a seat on Starliner will cost about $90 million.
If you're interested in hitching a ride, NASA also plans to open the space station to tourists for $35,000 per night.
- Reliance Industries' net profit crosses ₹15,000 crore in September quarter
- Reliance Retail's revenue has fallen short of its own record by ₹2,000 crore
- Reliance confirms JioPhone Next will be launched in time for Diwali
- SEBI approves Paytm’s $2.2 billion IPO, company explores November listing
- Indian Broadcasting & Digital Foundation re-elects K Madhavan as its President