Elon Musk’s SpaceX is going to start putting people on its test flights in April next year, ahead of Boeing, NASA has revealed in a schedule published Thursday.
All the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have been taken there on Russian Soyuz spacecraft since the retirement of the American shuttle in 2011. However, NASA has only booked seats on the Russian craft up until November 2019.
NASA now plans to use private companies to achieve the task itself—after all, each berth on a Soyuz capsule costs around $80 million.
Two companies have NASA contracts to provide flights to the ISS between 2019 and 2024: SpaceX and Boeing (BA). And it’s now apparent that SpaceX is slightly ahead—it will conduct a crewed test flight in April of next year, while Boeing’s crewed test is only scheduled for “mid-2019.”
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will be launched on one of the company’s Falcon 9 rockets, while Boeing’s Starliner will hitch a lift on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. According to Bloomberg, NASA will name the astronauts that will fly on the tests on Friday.
However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office warned last month that certification delays for the two companies could, for a while, leave NASA with no way to get American astronauts onto the ISS. Both SpaceX and Boeing were supposed to clear this hurdle last year, but Boeing is now likely to win certification in January, with SpaceX following it the next month. Again, NASA has no Soyuz seats booked after November.
“NASA is continuing to assess multiple scenarios to ensure continued U.S. access to the International Space Station,” the space agency told Bloomberg.