While we'll never really be happy about the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA is completely over it and looking towards the future of space transportation, which is going to be commercial. The agency announced today its selection of three companies which it hopes to certify to take its astronauts up to the ISS and back within the next five years.
These initial contracts, which only amount to $10 million or so per company, are mostly about developing safety and certification standards and verifying performance requirements. Not stupendously exciting, but this is the mature Commercial Crew Program's first major contract ever, and at least from that perspective, this is the big kick-off.
So, here's who's involved.
Shockingly, the only private company to dock a commercial spacecraft with the ISS is at the top of NASA's list. Dragon has already proven itself in cargo missions, with another delivery scheduled for March of next year. SpaceX always intended for Dragon to carry astronauts as well, and the capsule (the manned version of which is called DragonRider) has the capacity for seven people, the same number who would fly on a typical shuttle mission.
SpaceX plans to test launchpad and in-flight abort systems for DragonRider over the next several years, with the first manned orbital launch (with a non-NASA crew) tentatively scheduled for 2015.
Boeing's Crew Space Transportation capsule (CST-100) shares many characteristics with DragonRider, including a seven person capacity and the ability to be used over and over again, for up to ten missions in a row. Earlier this year, Boeing dropped a CST-100 to test its parachutes and airbag landing system, and the company maintains that it could have an operational version by about 2015 (although that seems optimistic to us).
Dream Chaser has to be the coolest spacecraft of the three, because it's not a capsule: It's a fully reusable lifting-body spaceplane with much more in common with a shuttle. It takes off vertically on top of a rocket, and then after its trip to space, glides to a landing on a conventional runway. Dream Chaser is currently on-time and on-budget, according to Sierra Nevada Corporation, and could be ready to go as early as 2016.
The notable absence from this list? Lockheed Martin's Orion capsule. NASA throws it a bone in the press release, however, stating that "the agency also is developing the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System (SLS), a crew capsule and heavy-lift rocket to provide an entirely new capability for human exploration." We're taking this to mean that Orion is intended more for long-duration spaceflight and less for taxi duties, although it could simply be that Orion may not be manned-flight ready until 2020.
Anyway, the second phase of this contract will "include the final development, testing and verifications necessary to allow crewed demonstration flights to the space station." The format will be open and competitive, and while we're not sure whether this means that there will be just one contact awarded, in this particular case, we're hoping that everyone can be winners.