In the early morning hours of 21 July 2011, NASA’s space shuttle Atlantis landed at the Kennedy shuttle landing complex in Florida. It may have looked like a standard space shuttle landing, but it was the end of an era for NASA. This was the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle programme, which had launched 135 missions over a span of 30 years. Since 1981, the space shuttle was the United States primary way of getting humans into space. The program was a huge engineering achievement for NASA, but the ageing shuttles and cost of launch meant it was no longer affordable on the reduced NASA budgets of the time.

After Atlantis’ final flight, American astronauts became reliant on the Russian Soyuz program to hitch a ride to space. Over the decades, Russia and the USA had continued a cooperative relationship in space with the construction of space stations, but NASA did not want to continue being reliant on Russia for access to space. They put out a call to private companies to build new launch systems capable of getting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil. With this, the Commercial Crew Program was born (CCP).

Russian cosmonaut Pavel Vinogradov (top right), Expedition 36 commander; along with NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy (bottom right) and Russian cosmonaut Alexander Misurkin, both flight engineers, are pictured in the Soyuz TMA-08M spacecraft currently docked to the Poisk Mini-Research Module 2 (MRM2) of the International Space Station (Expedition 36/ISS)

Space Taxis

Since the beginning of the space race in the 1950s government funded space agencies (like NASA) were the only ones with the capability to launch humans into space. These agencies typically built their own rockets and spacecraft, like the famous Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft that took astronauts to the Moon. However, as rocket technology advanced and became more accessible, many private launch companies formed.

In the decades that followed the end of the Apollo program in 1972, NASA’s budgets were cut, constraining their ability to develop, build, and launch their own rockets. However, private companies, like United Launch Alliance (ULA), were now able to offer NASA payloads a ‘ride’ into space without NASA needing to build their own expensive rockets, much like a taxi service. ULA became the primary launch provider for NASA and successfully launched many of their planetary probes into space. However, ULA did not have a human-rated rocket or a spacecraft that could ferry astronauts to space.

This is where the Commercial Crew Program stepped in. Multiple companies jumped at the chance to launch astronauts to the ISS. Blue Origin, SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corp all proposed launch concepts, using NASA research and development funding. Eventually, NASA chose to award further funding to both Boeing and SpaceX to continue development of a human-rated launch system, edging closer to ending their reliance on the Soyuz.

ULA’s parent company, Boeing, had decades of experience in successful flight technologies within both the airline and aerospace industry. Likewise, SpaceX had established themselves as a key player in space after they began to supply the ISS with cargo using their Dragon capsule and their highly advanced rocket technology like the Falcon 9 rocket boosters. Both companies began development of their respective crew capsules. Boeing named their spacecraft ‘Starliner’, and SpaceX chose ‘Crew Dragon’; a variant of their already-flying Cargo Dragon.

NASA’s Juno planetary probe, enclosed in its payload fairing, launches atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket (NASA/Kenny Allen)

A Race to the ISS

When contracts were awarded to Boeing and SpaceX in 2011, NASA initially favoured Boeing, who had a proven track record of launching payloads for NASA via ULA. As the new player, SpaceX was given less funding, as they had only just begun to launch rockets into space and their Falcon rockets were highly experimental at the time. The Falcon was being designed as a reusable rocket that could be refurbished and reused after each mission. This concept is familiar to us today, but at the time no such technology existed. Rockets were used once, typically falling back to Earth or burning up in the atmosphere, adding to the expense. This is what SpaceX wanted to change, believing that rockets needed to become highly reusable to greatly reduce the cost of launching things to space.

Each company had very different approaches to how they were going to get astronauts to and from the ISS. Boeing continued with the development of Starliner which was to be launched atop of already-existing rockets from ULA. This led them to focus on the capsule, rather than the rocket itself. They had a rather traditional approach to the capsule, drawing on existing technologies. Its design was based heavily on the Apollo, shuttle, and ISS programs, as well as NASA’s Orion capsule. Their progress on Starliner seemed slow, as both they and NASA appeared more concerned in upholding their image than risk failure on experimental technologies. Starliner’s development was often kept quiet, with very few updates to the public on the program’s progress.

SpaceX took a completely different approach. They continued with the development of both their Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon and were far less concerned with their image. SpaceX would often broadcast all tests of both the rocket and the capsule, even if they ended in failure. They were not held back by a public image that they needed to uphold, and this appeared to free them up to truly innovate and push their technology forward with private funds. Dozens of Falcon 9 rockets crashed and exploded while they were refining their landing technology, but each failure gave them critical data on how to improve the next flight.

In 2012, SpaceX became the first private company to successfully resupply the ISS with cargo. This gave them an advantage in developing the crew variant of their spacecraft based on their cargo rocket. Then, in 2015, they managed to land and recover the first stage of their Falcon 9 rocket on land. Just months later, they successfully landed another Falcon 9 on a floating barge in the ocean for the first time. Following this, in 2017, the company launched the first payload into space using a previously used Falcon 9 booster. Each milestone they achieved greatly reduced the cost of launching, meaning more customers could buy cheaper launch services from them, in turn generating more income to continue the development of their crew program. While SpaceX was moving forward in leaps and bounds, Starliner was still yet to reach orbit.

A Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, Falcon 9 rocket is being prepared for the company’s first Commercial Resupply Services, or CRS-1, mission to send a Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (NASA/Ben Smegelsky)

America’s return to space

2019 was a big year for both SpaceX and Boeing.

SpaceX launched the first test flight of their Crew Dragon capsule, Demo-1, in March. The unmanned capsule successfully reached the ISS and docked for five days, before departing and safely returning to Earth via splash-down off the coast of Florida. It was the first time that SpaceX’s crew variant of Dragon had reached space, proving they had the capability to ferry astronauts to the ISS. Later that year, in December, Boeing launched their unmanned Starliner capsule into space with the goal of reaching the ISS, thus proving their technology worked. Unfortunately for them, Starliner experienced an error during launch, putting the capsule in a lower-than-expected orbit and rendered it unable to reach the ISS. The capsule returned to Earth after two days in orbit – an embarrassing partial failure for Boeing.

In 2020, the Covid19 pandemic caused unanticipated delays to capsule launches for both companies.

However, SpaceX pushed on, and in May they launched two astronauts into space aboard their Crew Dragon for the Demo-2 mission to the ISS. The test mission was a success, and Americans Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken became the first astronauts to launch from American soil since the shuttle program ended almost a decade prior. They stayed aboard the ISS for two months before returning to Earth on the same capsule, proving that SpaceX was capable of safely launching and landing astronauts from America once again.

Demo-2 astronauts launch into space from American soil for the first time in almost a decade. (NASA/SpaceX)

The company followed up on the success of Demo-2 with Crew-1. Crew-1 was the first operational crew rotation of astronauts to the ISS, launching four astronauts to the ISS in December 2020. The crew spent over five months on the space station conducting experiments before returning to Earth this month, May 2021. While Crew-1 was on the ISS, the second rotation of astronauts, Crew-2, launched another four astronauts in April, and they are currently on board conducting more science in space. Both the booster and capsule for Crew-2 had been used on other SpaceX missions, another first for the company. Crew-3 is scheduled to launch in October of this year. Meanwhile, Boeing is scheduled to launch the first crewed Starliner to the ISS sometime later this year, but the date is still unknown at the time of writing.

The success of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon program brought an end to the United States’ reliance on Russia for access to space, and it has become a huge symbol of pride and leadership for NASA and SpaceX. SpaceX was seen as the underdog early in the CCP program, but their success has proven the value of privatisation and innovation in the space sector. NASA’s CCP has pushed technology forward, just as the space shuttle program did in the decades prior. It is now cheaper and easier than ever to reach space, making it more accessible to everyone on Earth.

From left are the SpaceX Crew-2 astronauts Thomas Pesquet, Megan McArthur, Shane Kimbrough and Akihiko Hoshide during training in Hawthorne, (SpaceX)