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SpaceX just scored a historic first from NASA

Published Nov 11th, 2020 4:52PM EST
crew dragon nasa
Image: NASA

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  • NASA has officially certified SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for future use in crewed missions to space. 
  • Crew Dragon becomes the first spacecraft from the Commercial Crew Progam to receive the distinction, well ahead of Boeing’s Starliner.
  • The first official Crew Dragon mission with a crew of four astronauts is expected to commence soon.

It was several years ago that NASA decided to bet big on its commercial partners and invest heavily in SpaceX and Boeing to deliver a crew-capable spacecraft that could be launched from US soil for the first time in nearly a decade. Earlier this year, SpaceX made good on its promises, and a pair of NASA scientists took the trip from Earth to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle.

The mission went smoothly, and while the two space travelers made it to the ISS and then back to Earth in the shiny new spacecraft, NASA still had to formally recognize that the vehicle was ready for future use. This certification is a pretty big deal, and now, months after the actual trip, NASA has finally bestowed it upon SpaceX’s high-tech people-carrier.

The certification of a spacecraft by NASA is incredibly important. Up until now, NASA had been paying Russia’s Roscosmos space program to lease seats aboard its Soyuz spacecraft launches bound for the ISS. It’s been that way since the shuttering of the Space Shuttle program nearly a decade ago.

It wasn’t an ideal situation for multiple reasons, not least of which is that the cost of the trips was starting to add up and NASA was no closer to having its own way to send humans into space from US soil. The Commercial Crew Program — and more specifically, the SpaceX Crew Dragon — has now changed that.

“I’m extremely proud to say we are returning regular human spaceflight launches to American soil on an American rocket and spacecraft,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who is reportedly on his way out the door, said in a statement. “This certification milestone is an incredible achievement from NASA and SpaceX that highlights the progress we can make working together with commercial industry.”

NASA’s certification of Crew Dragon is big news for SpaceX, but it also highlights how far behind Boeing is with its own crewed spacecraft, Starliner. Early on in the Commercial Crew Program, many in the industry believed that Boeing would beat SpaceX to the punch by a large margin. That ended up being completely wrong, as SpaceX rapidly got its Crew Dragon program through many milestones (despite some significant delays) and beat Boeing to the punch.

Starliner made what would have been its first trip to the ISS earlier this year, unmanned, but the flight was cut short by a glitch. The spacecraft had to return to Earth without ever making it to the space station, and now Boeing is going to have to try again. Then, a crewed test flight can be carried out, and at that point, NASA may finally bestow Starliner with the same certification that Crew Dragon has already received.

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