Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company SpaceX has signed a contract with NASA to launch future crewed missions to the International Space Station.
Currently, NASA uses Russian Soyuz rockets to send its astronauts to the ISS, but hopes to begin launching from US soil sometime in late 2017.
SpaceX is the second of four companies that will receive Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts from NASA, as Boeing were signed up in May 2015.
Both companies must now begin assembling and preparing their spacecraft for NASA to review, with Boeing getting started on its CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX readying its Crew Dragon, an upgrade of its existing Dragon module.
The SpaceX Dragon has succeeded where many of its contemporaries have failed. In 2010 it became the first privately operated spacecraft to enter orbit, and was successfully recovered after its record breaking maiden voyage. Furthermore, the Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with and attach to the ISS. Due to this unparalleled success, SpaceX signed a contract with NASA worth £1.026 billion ($1.6 billion), representing a minimum of 12 cargo delivery flights to the ISS. There is also an additional contract option allowing NASA to order extra missions up to a total value of $3.1 billion. It is launched into orbit by the Falcon 9 rocket, which is also made by SpaceX.
The first six unmanned runs to the ISS were all a complete success. The seventh, which took off at the end of June 2015, crashed back to Earth two minutes into the flight, raining debris out of the sky as the rocket broke apart. After a thorough investigation of the event, it is now believed that a flawed steel strut that held a helium pressurisation bottle failed, resulting in an ‘overpressure event’ that destroyed the rocket.
The CST-100 is slightly larger than the Apollo Command Module and has received further funding from Bigelow Aerospace, as the CST-100 offers a means of reaching their planned space station in the future. As it is reusable, Boeing’s spacecraft will be fitted with a combined recovery system featuring both parachutes and airbags, which will allow it to land on the ground rather than water when it returns to Earth. Reusability is key to its success, as the more times it can be used the cheaper each flight will become for both the company and prospective customers.
Although the CST-100’s design focuses mainly on safety and practicality, they have begun to plan new features to improve their passengers’ experience. One of these is LED sky lighting, which gives off a blue light similar to the sky to make the rather cramped capsule feel roomier inside.
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