NASA has officially ordered its first commercial crew mission from private spaceflight company SpaceX. That means SpaceX has NASA's authority to proceed with the first crewed launch of the company's Crew Dragon capsule, which can carry up to seven people in lower Earth orbit. The mission is slated for sometime in late 2017, but the exact date has not yet been determined.
SpaceX and Boeing hold contracts with NASA through the space agency's Commercial Crew Program. The initiative tasks the two companies with creating and operating spacecraft that can ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Currently, NASA is without a primary space vehicle and must rely on the Russian Soyuz rocket, which costs $80 million to get just one US astronaut into lower Earth orbit. Commercial Crew will allow American astronauts to get to the ISS on American-made vehicles once again, and for much lower costs.
The mission is slated for sometime in late 2017
According to the contracts, NASA guarantees it will make at least four orders from SpaceX and Boeing for crewed missions to the ISS. Boeing received its first official order in May of this year, beating out SpaceX by six months. However, the race is still on to see who will launch their mission first. NASA says it will figure out later when the launches will take place.
Mission orders are made two to three years prior to launch date, according to NASA, so that the companies have time to assemble their launch vehicles and their spacecraft. Neither SpaceX nor Boeing have actually built their respective crew vehicles yet. Boeing is getting started on manufacturing its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, and SpaceX is working on its Crew Dragon, which is an enhanced version of its Dragon cargo capsule.
The order also comes at an odd time for SpaceX. The company's fleet of rockets have been grounded since June, after a Falcon 9 carrying supplies to the ISS exploded post-launch. SpaceX figured that a faulty strut in the rocket's upper fuel tank was to blame, but its flights have been on hold as the company conducted a complete investigation into the incident. SpaceX is expected to return to launch sometime in December, but no official date has been set.
Additionally, it's possible that SpaceX's crewed mission for NASA won't happen in 2017 as planned. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has admonished Congress several times, claiming the Commercial Crew Program has been consistently underfunded. If NASA doesn't get adequate funds in time, the first launch under the program — whether it be from SpaceX or Boeing — will likely be pushed back to 2018.