In an effort to break America’s reliance on Russia to ferry US crew members to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA has awarded two commercial companies with contracts to build and launch the next spacecrafts for human transportation. No one could have foreseen America’s dependence on Russia during the Cold War, and with current tensions running high between the two countries, it is no surprise that NASA is funding commercial companies to manufacture manned spacecraft that can be launched from our soil and transport astronauts to and from the ISS.
With $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion respectively, Boeing and SpaceX will be the new commercial sources for crew transportation. By 2017, both companies are obliged to have completed one crewed test flight into orbit and docked with ISS. There will be at least one NASA astronaut aboard to verify that the spacecraft is fully functional and capable of interfacing with ISS successfully. So, two companies and two spacecraft, that means double the payload; and with both fully functional, the US will be able to send more researchers to the station, increasing their productivity.
SpaceX’s reusable, crewed vehicle is dubbed the Crew Dragon, solidifying the theory that engineers are not the best when it comes to nomenclature. Although they deserve some props for the thruster name, SuperDraco, which must be a cross between Dragon Ball Z and Harry Potter. With eight on board, these thrusters will help land the spacecraft after reentry and in case of an emergency during liftoff. Each thruster is capable of 16,000 pounds of thrust, and with deep throttle capabilities, the craft will have an unprecedented amount of control. Earlier manned vehicles jettisoned the crew compartment in case of an emergency, however this is only effective in the first few minutes before gaining high altitude. With the SuperDraco thrusters, the Crew Dragon could successfully land further into its ascent. The SuperDraco thrusters have already been tested for performance and been qualified by NASA.
Boeing’s CST-100 is a similar spacecraft if you are looking at it from the outside. It does not have its own thrusters but instead has a replaceable heat shield, so when it reenters Earth atmosphere and lands, the heat shield can be replaced and the capsule can be reused up to 10 times. Boeing plans on doing a manned test flight in early 2017.
You may be wondering where the commercial part comes into play, besides the fact that these are two commercial companies. Well, both companies plan to offer civilian flights on their commercial vehicles into low earth orbit, for a hefty price of course.