NASA Plans Additional SpaceX Flights to ISS as Delays Hinder Boeing's Starliner Capsule

In the wake of continual delays on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced Friday that it is planning additional SpaceX flights to the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA stated in a press release that it would "acquire up to three additional crew flights to the ISS as part of its Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract."

"The additional crew flights allow NASA to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. capability for human access to the space station," the administration added.

The additional flights mark a continuing collaboration between NASA and SpaceX. Owned by Tesla's Elon Musk, SpaceX has become just as well known for its civilian spaceflights, and in 2020 the company became the first private organization to send astronauts to the ISS.

Currently, NASA is halfway through its CCtCap contract with SpaceX, with the most recent launching in April and returning in November.

NASA is planning the additional flights aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft to take place "as early as 2023."

SpaceX Crew Dragon
NASA has ordered at least three more potential SpaceX Crew Dragon flights after continual delays on the Boeing Starliner spacecraft. Here, the Crew Dragon capsule is seen on the launchpad in Florida prior to a May 2020 launch. SpaceX/Getty

One main reason that the administration has ordered the additional flights is reportedly due to issues and delays surrounding Boeing's Starliner spacecraft. Designed to operate alongside SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule, the Starliner has been plagued by a series of problematic tests and has yet to fly a crewed mission.

"Due to technical issues and the resulting delays experienced by Boeing, it is expected that SpaceX will launch [the Crew Dragon]," NASA told CNBC space reporter Michael Sheetz.

Additionally, the administration's press release stated that "NASA's assessment is that the SpaceX crew transportation system is the only one certified to meet NASA's safety requirements to transport crew to the space station."

However, NASA reiterated that it would work with Boeing as it investigates the issues with the Starliner, and will continue to assist in preparing the Starliner for eventual crewed flight. The additional SpaceX flights should give Boeing a larger buffer to get its capsule space-ready, NASA said.

The administration added that it still plans to alternate missions between Boeing and SpaceX once both spacecraft are operational.

"NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner's next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation."

Beyond working on sending additional missions into orbit, the administration stated that it is also working on projects to extend the life of the ISS beyond 2024.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, Boeing said that it would "continue to make progress on the oxidizer isolation valve issue on the Starliner service module propulsion system. Safety of the Starliner spacecraft, our employees, and our crew members is the team's number one priority."

"We are taking the appropriate amount of time to work through the process to set this system up for success on OFT-2 and all future Starliner missions. Potential launch windows for OFT-2 continue to be assessed by NASA, Boeing, United Launch Alliance, and the Eastern Range," Boeing added.

"The team currently is working toward opportunities in the first half of 2022 pending hardware readiness, the rocket manifest, and space station availability."