Illustration by Jessica Koynock
The United States’ contract with Russia to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) will be ending soon, and if the U.S. wants to continue to have a presence on the space station, that means they need to find a new means to get there. Through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, two spacecraft in development have been chosen to meet this task, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and the Boeing Crew Space Transport (CST)-100 Starliner. The race is now on to see who will get astronauts to the ISS first, and although the conventional wisdom was that the more experienced Boeing had the inside track, currently it is SpaceX that is scheduled to be the first private company to send NASA astronauts into space.
According to the Russian Deputy Prime Minister, the contract between Russia and the US to shuttle NASA astronauts ends in April 2019. NASA says the last seat they have booked for a trip on a Russian Soyuz to the International Space Station is in November 2019. This gives the U.S. little more than a year to finalize a new means of transport.
The last spacecraft to fly astronauts to the ISS was the Space Shuttle. On its final flight in 2011, a flag that had also been on the first Space Shuttle mission was left behind. It was stuck on a hatch as a prize to be claimed by the next crew to fly to the ISS from U.S. soil. Now Boeing and SpaceX are competing for the honor to fly those future astronauts to the ISS.
According to Space.com, in 2014 SpaceX received $2.6 billion and Boeing received $4.2 billion to develop their spacecraft.
Until recently, Boeing seemed to be the leader in this race. As they point out on the Starliner’s website, “Every American spacecraft that has carried astronauts into space was designed and built by Boeing or Boeing’s heritage companies.”
This fact coupled with fewer delays, and better familiarity and experience with filling out the massive amounts of paperwork required by NASA made Boeing the safe bet. As late as July, articles were predicting Boeing would win the race. Then Boeing announced they experienced a leak due to faulty valves during a test in June forcing them to push back test dates. This delay put SpaceX in the lead just in time for NASA’s announcement of the official uncrewed and crewed test flight schedule.
In early August, NASA announced SpaceX would launch an uncrewed demonstration flight of their Dragon capsule in November 2018, and a crewed flight in April 2019. NASA listed Boeing as having their uncrewed flight in “late 2018/early 2019” with their crewed flight in “mid-2019.”
This announcement, barring further delays, made SpaceX the official winner for the race to get humans back to the ISS.
The SpaceX Dragon capsule has already made history for commercial spaceflight. It was the first private spacecraft to be retrieved after obtaining Earth orbit and is the first private spacecraft to dock with the ISS. The first resuppy test flight to the ISS was in May 2012. Resupply flights began soon after and continue to this day.
According to Space.com, SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk named the capsule after Puff the Magic Dragon. He chose the name when he founded SpaceX due to critics claiming his plans to build rockets and space vehicles were fantasy and would never happen. His critics were mistaken.
The most recent pictures of the interior of the Dragon capsule look as if they are out of a science fiction movie. They feature smooth white walls, five elliptical windows, and touchscreen control panels, reminiscent of the futuristic interior designs of Tesla automobiles.
SpaceX had also planned for a futuristic landing system for the Dragon capsule, utilizing landing gear and retro-rockets, a system that has worked for them on their Falcon rockets making them reusable – another space industry first. However, the system is not ready for the Dragon capsule, and initial human spaceflights will utilize a parachute system. The capsule will land in water, like previous human-crewed space flights.
The Dragon capsule interior is 11 cubic meters in volume and can hold up to 7 crew members. It can also be configured to hold less crew and more cargo. A unique feature of the Dragon capsule is that is has a trunk. The trunk is a section below the main capsule that holds the solar panels, but can also hold an additional 14 cubic meters of unpressurized cargo. While the capsule is reusable, the trunk is not. It detaches from the capsule before re-entry and burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The crewed Dragon capsule will be launched using a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Interior photographs of the Boeing Starliner are not as abundant as the Dragon capsule, but from what is out there, it appears the Starliner will also be more futuristic than previous crewed capsules, including touchscreen displays. It appears that Boeing will use blue lights, similar to what they use in newer commercial aircraft to “enhance the flying experience.”
The interior Starliner space is planned to be around 11 cubic meters, similar to the Dragon capsule, and will also have the capacity to carry up to 7 passengers.
An advantage the Starliner has is that it can make ground landings. It utilizes a parachute braking system, like the Dragon capsule, but when it gets to the ground, it deploys airbags to soften the landing.
The Starliner will be launched by an Atlas V rocket, which is operated by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. However, another advantage the Starliner has is that it is also compatible with other launch vehicles, including the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The future for both of the capsules is bright. If SpaceX does get humans to the ISS first, it will give them an advantage for winning future contracts with NASA. SpaceX launches are also much less expensive. However, Boeing does not intend NASA to be their only customer. They have partnered with Bigelow Aerospace to create space stations in low earth orbit, and they have announced they have discussed working with space tourism company Space Adventures to sell extra seats on the Starliner to private citizens. Space Adventures brokered several similar trips to the ISS for private citizens aboard Russian spacecraft in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Both Boeing and SpaceX are also in a race to get humans into lunar orbit and to Mars. SpaceX has plans to get humans to Mars in 2024, while Boeing is working with NASA to get humans into Mars orbit using the Boeing Space Launch System (SLS) in the 2030s.
“Eventually we’re going to go to Mars, and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC in December.
Muilenburg commented during an interview with CNBC’s Jim Kramer. Kramer tweeted Muilenburg’s comment, to which SpaceX CEO Elon Musk replied, “Do it.”
Musk often admits that he sets very aggressive timelines, and although those timelines often slide, SpaceX has seen success well beyond what skeptics would have ever believed possible. And although Boeing has the advantage of a rich history of involvement in previous human spaceflight programs, SpaceX continues to make spaceflight history and exceed expectations.
According to a recent article in Popular Mechanics, “There’s more at stake than bragging rights. Whoever delivers astronauts to the ISS first will not only make history and earn the right to keep the American flag on the space station but also claims an advantage in future sales of manned space launches. And future passengers include customers beyond NASA.”