On November 15th, 2020, NASA and SpaceX made history when a crewed spacecraft – the Crew Dragon Resilience – lifted off from American soil and delivered four astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). This mission (designated Crew-1) was a culminating achievement for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and effectively restored domestic launch capability to the U.S. for the first time since the Space Shuttle‘s retirement in 2011. As of April, SpaceX’s launch vehicles and spacecraft were used to mount the first all-private Axiom Mission-1 and the fourth flight of the CCP (Crew-4).
Building on this success, NASA recently filed a Notice Of Intent (NOI) to purchase five additional Crew Dragon spacecraft. This decision is based in large part on the delays suffered by Boeing – NASA’s other CCP commercial partner – and the development of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. But perhaps the most significant takeaway from this filing is how it reaffirms NASA’s commitment to the ISS until 2030. With the recent withdrawal of the Russians from the ISS program, the future of the station has been somewhat uncertain.
The International Space Station imaged in orbit around Earth. Credit: NASA
The NOI was filed on Jun 1st, 2022, at 02:09 PM EDT (11:09 AM PDT) on behalf of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. According to the Notice, NASA will be purchasing five additional Crew Transportation Systems (CTS) as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract they signed with SpaceX. The purpose of this, it states, is so that NASA can maintain rotating crews aboard the ISS and continue to meet its obligations to its international partners – which is in keeping with the NASA Authorization Act of 2015. As it states:
“It is the policy of the United States to maintain an uninterrupted capability for human space flight and operations in low-Earth orbit, and beyond, as an essential instrument of national security and the capability to ensure continued United States participation and leadership in the exploration and utilization of space…
“[A]warding five additional PCMs to SpaceX will ensure redundant and backup capabilities through 2030, which is essential for the following reasons: (i) the obligation to provide continuous flight availability for the safe operation of the ISS; (ii) the potential for anomalies or accidents; (iii) the potential for unforeseen external factors; and, (iv) risks associated with the design of a safe and reliable CTS.”
NASA’s decision to extend its commitment to the ISS until 2030 was officially announced in December 2021. However, the fate of the ISS became the subject of concern in February of this year after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. In response, the U.S., the EU, and other ISS partner nations imposed sanctions on Russia and suspended cooperation with its federal space agency (Roscosmos). Roscosmos’ Director-General (Dmitry Rogozin) responded by threatening (and stating) that Russia would withdraw from the ISS program (though it has yet to commit to this course of action).
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew ship approaches the International Space Station above the south Pacific on May 20th, 2022. Credit: NASA
According to the Notice, NASA’s decision was also motivated by concerns regarding the development of CTS vehicles by both companies contracted through the CCP – Boeing