Building a New American Capability with Commercial Crew

American Capability
Blue Origin Spacecraft in Orbit
Credits: Blue Origin
CST-100 Starliner in orbit
Credits: Boeing
 SNC Dream Chaser in orbit
Credits: Sierra Nevada Corporation
Crew Dragon in space
Credits: SpaceX

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

An opportunity to help develop the first new spacecraft and rockets for astronauts in more than 30 years is a major motivation for the engineers and spaceflight specialists of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. They also point routinely to the pride felt in delivering new, American-made space systems, opening up new possibilities in science and commerce.

“I think it’s vitally important that we regain the capability to launch astronauts from America,” said Michelle Green, strategic communications, policy and planning manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Boeing and SpaceX, each selected by NASA to complete development on independent spacecraft and systems to take astronauts to the International Space Station, have committed to launching astronauts from launch complexes on Florida’s Space Coast.

Once flying, the spacecraft will be the first to take astronauts into space from the United States since 2011. NASA required that each spacecraft be able to fly up to four astronauts and 220.5 pounds of critical cargo, such as life sciences research, to the orbiting laboratory. When Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon bring crew members back to Earth, they’ll also return critical experiments, including human research samples that need special care. Right now, only the Soyuz and SpaceX cargo Dragon spacecraft can return experiments and other items back to Earth.

For researchers awaiting the return of experiment samples from the station, the new generation of spacecraft will be able to deliver the vital items into the hands of scientists much faster than before. The timeliness of getting experiments back to the scientists is important in order to reduce the effects of gravity on the science.

Commercial crew has been redefining space system development for low-Earth orbit by forming strong public-private partnerships with the aerospace industry to encourage innovation while maintaining NASA’s high safety standards and leveraging NASA’s 50 plus years of spaceflight experience.

Along with the creation of two new spacecraft systems to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, the Commercial Crew Program partners with industry to advance a diverse economic market in space. Since 2010, NASA has worked with Blue Origin on spacecraft, engines and systems and Sierra Nevada Corporation on the Dream Chaser spacecraft. NASA selected the Dream Chaser’s cargo version to ferry supplies, equipment and experiments to and from the orbiting laboratory starting in 2019. Both Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin also are working toward the goal of flying people to and from space.

“Once NASA has certified its two commercial partners’ systems to fly, we will have also kick started the commercial spaceflight industry, opening the door for private, paying customers to fly in space,” said Steve Payne, launch integration manager for commercial crew. “This is a truly exciting time for all of us.”

Each company maintains ownership of its spacecraft and systems and is responsible for operating the spacecraft and rockets during the mission. NASA buys missions as a service in an arrangement that aims for cost-effectiveness, reliability and safety.

“What I love about commercial crew is that it’s a small, dedicated group of engineers both on the NASA and on the partners’ side and we both are working together to return astronauts to the space station using American systems,” said Jeff Thon, a Commercial Crew Program engineer working with the landing and recovery systems for the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft.

The return of America’s launch capability for its astronauts also offers significant benefits to the other nations taking part in the space station’s operations and research said NASA’s Bill Jordan, International Partner Liaison for the Commercial Crew Program.

“They are happily anticipating the return of our human launch capability,” Jordan said. “It’s not just a redundant capability to launch crew members, it’s also another lifeboat for the station, with the ability to evacuate at least four crew members if ever necessary. That means we can fully staff the station and double the research time. It also gives additional opportunities to fly the international partners’ astronauts.”

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