NASA has hedged its bets as a result of Boeing’s ongoing Starliner delays. According to SpaceNews, NASA intends to order up to three more crewed SpaceX flights to ensure “uninterrupted” US trips to the International Space Station as early as 2023.
According to the agency, the company’s Crew Dragon is the only system that meets partner country and safety requirements within the required time frame. In other words, if Boeing isn’t ready, NASA doesn’t want to be without a ride to the ISS.
After delaying a second orbital test to investigate an oxidizer isolation valve problem, NASA was pleased that Boeing was prioritizing “safety over schedule” for Starliner. However, the administration was still in a bind.
Associate administrator Kathy Lueders said it was “critical” to get more flights now to keep the US on the ISS.
This does not endanger Boeing’s capsule. NASA still desired two distinct crew systems to ensure redundancy, and it intended to alternate between Crew Dragon and Starliner once both were available.
Officials also emphasized that the agreement did not preclude NASA from changing the contract in order to obtain additional flights.
Nonetheless, the planned purchase is a setback for Boeing. Starliner is an important part of Boeing’s commercial spaceflight program and, unofficially, serves as proof that the transportation veteran can compete in the private space race with a fast-moving ‘newcomer’ like SpaceX.
Even if the move is only temporary, the Crew Dragon backup plans reflect a loss of confidence in Boeing.