NASA is slowly but surely declaring its independence from Russia when it comes to shuttling astronauts to the International Space Station. On Friday, the agency noted that it had taken “another important step Friday in returning U.S. astronaut launches from U.S. soil” by ordering a second SpaceX crew mission to the ISS.
“Commercial crew flights from Florida’s Space Coast to the International Space Station will restore America’s human spaceflight launch capability and increase the time U.S. crews can dedicate to scientific research, which is helping prepare astronauts for deep space missions, including the Journey to Mars,” NASA said in a press release.
The decision comes as part of the Commercial Crew Program, which NASA began six years ago to ensure that the U.S. could continuously maintain access to outer space. The first such mission from SpaceX was ordered in November 2015, and two others were ordered from Boeing, one in May and one in December 2015.
The program was launched to coincide with the end of the space shuttle program, which effectively eliminated the United States’ access to a primary space vehicle. As such, American astronauts were depending upon Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, to hitch a ride to the ISS. While it’s been working, it hasn’t come without its costs — Roscosmos charges NASA around $80 million per person for the trip.
“The order of a second crew rotation mission from SpaceX, paired with the two ordered from Boeing will help ensure reliable access to the station on American spacecraft and rockets,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “These systems will ensure reliable U.S. crew rotation services to the station, and will serve as a lifeboat for the space station for up to seven months.”
NASA added that SpaceX’s successful completion of interim developmental milestones and internal designs reviews for its Crew Dragon spacecraft, Falcon 9 rocket, and related ground systems won the agency’s approval, and the honor of taking American astronauts into space.
“We’re making great progress with Crew Dragon, with qualification of our docking adapter and initial acceptance testing of the pressure vessel qualification unit completed” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president and chief operating officer. “We appreciate the trust NASA has placed in SpaceX with the order of another crew mission and look forward to flying astronauts from American soil next year.”