NASA Approves SpaceX's Plans to Send Astronauts to Space Station

NASA 'Launch America' Promotional Image
NASA released this graphic for its Commercial Crew Transportation Program. (Image credit: NASA)

SpaceX's Dragon capsule is one step closer to flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

SpaceX has passed NASA's "certification baseline review," which required the California-based company to outline exactly how it plans to ferry crews to and from the orbiting lab using the Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon 9 rocket under SpaceX's Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract with the space agency.

"This milestone sets the pace for the rigorous work ahead as SpaceXmeets the certification requirements outlined in our contract," Kathryn Lueders, manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said in a statement. "It is very exciting to see SpaceX's proposed path to certification, including a flight test phase and completion of the system development."

The Commercial Crew Program has been encouraging the development of private American spacecraft, with the aim of returning astronauts into space from U.S. soil by 2017 or so. NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to do this work since the space shuttle fleet was grounded in 2011.

NASA has tapped SpaceX and Boeing to provide this orbital taxi service; the space agency awarded both companies multibillion contracts last September to complete work on the vehicles. (Boeing is also developing a capsule, which the aerospace giant calls the CST-100.)

Relying on the private sector for access to low-Earth orbit should free NASA up to work on getting astronauts farther afield, such as to a near-Earth asteroid and Mars, agency officials have said.

But SpaceX still has a lot of milestones to check off before Dragon and the Falcon 9 are ready to carry astronauts into space. While the CCtCap contract will culminate with at least one test flight with an astronaut in the spacecraft, the company is first expected to show how its operations, systems and materials will stand up to the rigors of space.

Dragon is expected to last up to 210 days while docked to the International Space Station, providing an escape route if astronauts need to leave the orbiting complex quickly.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: