Lost in the hoopla in NASA’s recent announcement of the first sets of commercial crew astronauts who will fly on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner, was a short sentence which said international partners would be assigned crew spots at a later date.
Feeling the pressure
NASA is feeling pressure to get its commercial crew program operational as reserved seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft will end by early 2020 and Congress does not want more seats purchased.
So when NASA announced the first commercial crews, there was some relief that maybe, just maybe, that one or both of Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft will be ready in time, and the U.S. can end its reliance on Russia who were charging as much US$82M per seat.
It should be noted that while the Russian Soyuz is designed to carry three astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), both Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft were designed to carry as many as seven per flight.
The schedule for the first commercial crews is currently as follows;
- Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): late 2018 / early 2019
- Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): mid-2019
- Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson (1st commercial astronaut)
- NASA astronaut Eric Boe
- NASA astronaut Nicole Aunapu Mann
- SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): November 2018
- SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): April 2019
- NASA astronaut Bob Behnken
- NASA astronaut Doug Hurley
- Boeing operational mission: Date TBA
- NASA astronaut Josh Cassada
- NASA astronaut Suni Williams
- SpaceX operational mission: Date TBA
- NASA astronaut Victor Glover
- NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins
Assuming everything goes well in the first sets of demo launches, then one or both of the spacecraft could be operational by late 2019.
Canadian astronauts and the commercial crew program
Astronaut David Saint-Jacques could be the last Canadian to fly on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). He would join Chris Hadfield and Robert Thirsk as the only Canadians to fly with the Russians.
Once the U.S. commercial crew program is operational it is unlike Canada would buy seats from the Russians to fly to the ISS, something it hasn’t done yet. Canadian astronaut flights have been arranged to date through NASA, something that is unlikely to change in the near term. It’s also unlikely the Russians would be able to compete with the costs per seat the U.S. will charge.
After Saint-Jacques completes his mission to the ISS next spring, Jeremy Hansen will be up next for a flight. But not until around 2022. That means the commercial crew program should have had several operational flights by then.
It also means that when Joshua Kutryk and Jennifer Sidey fly, they too will likely fly with Boeing or SpaceX.
What’s interesting about the commercial crew program, is that like the shuttle program, there are plenty of seats available per spacecraft. The shuttle could hold as many as 11 astronauts per mission, though the most that flew at one time was 10. As noted earlier, both Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft can hold up to seven.
This raises the question of whether Canadian astronauts will have more opportunities to fly. The answer is probably yes, the opportunity will likely be there. However, for that opportunity to be seized upon there needs to be a will on the part of the government with additional funding to make it happen.
However, there’s another variable at play here. In the early 2020’s, NASA’s new exploration spacecraft Orion may be ready to fly. The destination is not the ISS, but rather cislunar space. Image a Canadian flying to the moon and eventually landing there. That’s probably something the Canadian government might get behind rather, than more frequent flights to the ISS.
I bet Canada’s current four astronauts have all had a thought or two of going into space for more than one flight, with the possibility of the moon as an ultimate destination.