NASA officially placed an order with SpaceX Friday for a manned mission to the International Space Station in 2017. SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft will be used to send a crew and cargo to the ISS and then remain there for seven months before returning to Earth.
A similar order was placed with Boeing in May. The company's Starliner capsule is, like the Dragon, still in development, and both have similar purposes: safe, reusable, and relatively inexpensive transport of 4 to 6 astronauts and a couple hundred pounds of cargo.
The announcement isn't exactly a surprise: NASA had already mentioned it would be placing the SpaceX order some time this year. It's still a big milestone in the Commercial Crew Program, and indicates approval of both SpaceX's and Boeing's hardware and testing — despite a major accident in June that caused a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket to break up.
"It's really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions," said the program's manager, Kathy Lueders, in a NASA news release. "It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan."
What's still up in the air, so to speak, is which company will have the honor of launching first. That will likely come much closer to the proposed late-2017 launch window, and depend on the readiness of each company. Meanwhile, both must continue in their development and fabrication efforts.
Whichever is chosen will be the first manned launch from U.S. soil since the final flights of the Space Shuttles in 2011. In the meantime, NASA has had to rely on Russian rockets and launch facilities for the last few years — a costly stopgap measure.
"When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown," SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said in the NASA news release. "We're honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country."