Private space company SpaceX is about to get its first big break in a long time. They’ve reportedly confirmed their first ever manned mission with NASA, where the company’s rockets will fly American astronauts to the International Space Station.
The crewed flight in June 2019 will not just be SpaceX’s first ever, but also the first manned US mission since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011. Since then, American astronauts have been hitching rides aboard Russian Soyuz rockets, at a steep ticket price. Soon after the flight by Elon Musk’s company will be a manned NASA mission on one of Boeing’s spacecraft, in August.
Both spaceflights have already been postponed several times, mostly due to delayed testing schedules by the companies. After all, NASA can’t send astronauts on someone’s rocket unless they’re absolutely sure of its safety. Now, the space agency believes they’re running mostly on schedule, and says it will provide monthly updates on the deadlines.
“This new process for reporting our schedule is better; nevertheless, launch dates will still have some uncertainty, and we anticipate they may change as we get closer to launch,” Phil McAlister, the director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA, said to media.
“These are new spacecraft, and the engineering teams have a lot of work to do before the systems will be ready to fly.”
To some extent, however, these missions will also be tests for SpaceX and Boeing. The two astronauts on board each flight will spend two weeks on the ISS when they reach, before taking the rockets back to Earth. If all goes well, both SpaceX and Boeing will benefit from regular missions, flying astronauts to the ISS for six months at a time.
The upcoming missions are important for both private space companies, as they could provide lucrative government contracts, but it’s crucial for NASA that they succeed too. The US space agency has too long depended on Roscosmos for its astronauts and cargo to reach the space station, an agreement that expires in November 2019. Without this success, NASA could see itself pressured into a few more years of forced reliance on Russia, perhaps at even higher fares.