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Analysis: Earth to the Moon – The Future of Commercial Human Spaceflight

NASA presents the astronauts chosen to fly on Dragon and Starliner’s first crewed missions.
Credit: NASA

Twelve years ago, Space Shuttle Atlantis came to a final stop at the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center, ending NASA’s three decade long shuttle program. Despite the immense achievements of the iconic Space Shuttle, there was a profound emptiness to the United States’ space program. Without the Shuttle, there was no longer domestic crew access to space.

It wasn’t until 9 years later when NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley launched to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Dragon Capsule that the US would regain domestic crew launch capability. While this test flight only spanned three months and carried two people, it marked the beginning of a new era of human spaceflight; the Commercial Crew era. As of the writing of this article, the Commercial Crew Program has sent 30 astronauts representing countless nations to the ISS. While the Commercial Crew Program seems fairly straightforward, it has already had huge implications on the immediate future of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond.

The Commercial Crew Program was first introduced in 2011 under the Obama administration. After the Columbia tragedy, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that the Space Shuttle Program had become too dangerous and expensive to fly. Furthermore, the Augustine Commission, a group assembled by NASA in 2009 to review the US’ human spaceflight plans, determined that the current Constellation Program was not going to be able to accomplish any of its objectives. This left the US without domestic access to orbit, so a replacement was needed. 

To assist in the development of human rated spacecraft that could carry astronauts to and from the ISS, NASA awarded nearly $300 million in development funding  to four companies; Blue Origin, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and Boeing. Three years later, this list was narrowed down to two; SpaceX and their Crew Dragon capsule, and Boeing with their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. 

Between the two, another $6.8 billion was awarded to continue the development of their respective vehicles. Despite numerous delays and setbacks, the first operational mission of the Commercial Crew Program began on November 15th, 2020 after the successful demonstration

of crew operations onboard DM-2. SpaceX has since launched another six missions under Commercial Crew Program contracts, with Boeing approaching the first crewed test flight of their CST-100 Starliner capsule next year. 

Despite being the newer player in the aerospace industry, SpaceX was the first private company to shuttle cargo, and eventually crew, to and from the ISS. Crew Dragon was developed with the prior experience of Dragon 1, a cargo variant of Dragon that had been flying since 2010. Riding on top of the Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon carries groups of four astronauts to and from orbit. In most cases, these are six month long missions to the ISS.  After completing its mission, Dragon deorbits and re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, splashing down in one of seven locations off the coast of Florida. 

After being picked up by one of SpaceX’s crew recovery vessels, Dragon is returned to Florida where it undergoes an extensive refurbishment process. This refurbishment allows SpaceX to reuse both their crew and cargo Dragon capsule variants. SpaceX currently has four Crew Dragon capsules in operation, two of which have flown four spaceflights. Continuing the tradition that started under NASA in the 1960s, SpaceX named their Dragon capsules Endeavour, Resilience, Endurance, and Freedom. SpaceX also has an additional 5th Crew Dragon spacecraft on order. While NASA has only certified Crew Dragon for up to five flights, SpaceX has stated that it can be reused up to fifteen times.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft being prepared for the Crew-7 mission.
Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon testing campaign kicked off in 2015 with a pad abort test. A pad abort test demonstrates a spacecraft’s ability to escape from its launch vehicle while it is still on the launch pad in the event of a major anomaly. This was the first of four test flights required by the Commercial Crew Program to certify their vehicle for operational missions. SpaceX fired the 8 SuperDraco engines attached to Dragon, putting forces upwards of 15Gs on the capsule. Despite slight underperformance, the mission was deemed a success, and SpaceX proceeded towards the first spaceflight of Crew Dragon. 

Launching in the early hours of March 2nd, 2019, Demonstration Mission 1 (DM-1) was an uncrewed, six day test flight to the ISS. This mission proved SpaceX’s ability to perform critical tasks such as rendezvous, docking and re-entry with a fully autonomous spacecraft. DM-1 also carried a non-human passenger named Ripley. This device tested life support systems inside Dragon, and was even fitted with the flight suit that astronauts would soon go on to wear during operational flights. After a nearly flawless mission, SpaceX was given the go ahead to move onto the third test flight of Crew Dragon; a launch escape. This test flight, however, would soon run into a major roadblock.

On April 20th, 2019, SpaceX was set to perform a test of Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines, the same capsule which was flown on the successful DM-1 mission. Only about 100 milliseconds prior to ignition, a leak allowed liquid tetraoxide, the engine’s oxidizer, to flow through a helium check valve. This resulted in a structural failure, immediately followed by an explosion, destroying the vehicle. 

As per standard protocol, this failure was followed by an investigation by both SpaceX and NASA. Ultimately, SpaceX’s in-flight abort test and the following DM-2 mission would be delayed by nearly a year as the source of the anomaly was located and adjustments were made to current and future Dragon capsules. This incident shed light on another side of commercial and private spaceflight; transparency. 

After the explosion, very little details were made available to the public regarding the incident. In the week that followed, SpaceX only confirmed an anomaly had occurred during the test, despite the fact that evidence of an explosion involving hypergolic propellants was visible to beach goers and photographers. By the end of the month, a video of the anomaly was unofficially leaked, resulting in a statement from SpaceX and NASA that any employees who shared video or photos regarding the incident risked being fired. 

Whereas NASA is a government agency, SpaceX is a private company, therefore they do not share the same obligations in releasing information. The explosion of the DM-1 Dragon capsule was a perfect example, and introduction, to the amount of information that the public should expect to receive from private spaceflight organizations. Being a private company, SpaceX did not have the obligation to disclose any information that was not necessary regarding this test. In the past, NASA had been and remains committed to being open to the media and public about their operations. 

In January of 2020, SpaceX’s inflight abort test would proceed. This test was aimed to simulate a situation in which a crew would need to pull themselves away from a launch vehicle undergoing a major anomaly such as an explosion or deviation from the expected trajectory. On January 19th, 2020, a Crew Dragon Capsule was launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket to an altitude of about 20 km. At Max-Q, the point in which aerodynamic forces on the vehicle are at their maximum, Dragon fired its abort system and successfully pulled itself away from the launch vehicle. This proved Dragon’s ability to perform an abort at any point throughout ascent, certifying Dragon for a crewed test flight. 

It would be four months later when Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley became the first astronauts to fly onboard a Crew Dragon spacecraft, and the first astronauts to fly as part of the Commercial Crew Program. The conclusion of this mission certified Dragon for operational flights which began only three months later. 

The other vehicle chosen under the Commercial Crew Program is the Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Similar to SpaceX’s Dragon, Starliner was designed to ferry a crew of four astronauts to and from the ISS on six month long missions. Starliner also features a detachable trunk section, inside of which are life support systems, radiators, solar cells, fuel tanks, and the capsule’s abort system. Like Dragon, Starliner is designed to be reusable, possibly up to ten times. Boeing selected the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in the N22 configuration to propel Starliner into space. 

After the completion of a mission, Starliner demonstrates a unique capability. Unlike all previous orbital capsules developed by the United States, Starliner is designed to land on solid ground, rather than in the ocean. Once Starliner enters the atmosphere and deploys its main parachutes, it also deploys a set of airbags to cushion its impact with the desert surface of either New Mexico, Utah, California, or Arizona.

Boeing has built three CST-100 Starliner capsules since development began. One of these capsules was flown on its pad abort test (Spacecraft 1), one was flown on OFT-1 (Spacecraft 2), and the third was flown on OFT-2 (Calypso). Two of these capsules are still considered active by Boeing. 

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on course to dock with the ISS during OFT-2.
Credit: NASA

Starliner went through a fairly similar development and testing campaign to SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. Starliner first took to the skies during its pad abort test on November 4th, 2019. Unlike SpaceX, however, Starliner did not undergo an in flight abort test because it was not required by NASA. Instead, Boeing verified the integrity of Starliner by providing NASA with other forms of data. 

Only about a month after performing its pad abort test, Starliner was stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with its destination set to the ISS. In the morning hours of December 20th, 2019, Atlas V successfully launched the Starliner capsule into orbit, however problems ensued immediately. Shortly after spacecraft separation, an anomaly was encountered with Starliner’s Mission Elapsed Time clock. This resulted in unplanned thruster firings, placing Starliner into the incorrect orbit and too little fuel to correct it. With too much propellant wasted, the encounter with the ISS was canceled. 

The mission ended after only two days, with Starliner re-entering and landing at White Sands Space Harbor. With the mission prematurely concluding, and several key elements of the mission not completed, NASA and Boeing decided Starliner would have to undergo a second orbital flight test before it would be cleared for crew. Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) would be launched in May of 2022 and was declared a success. 

Starliner has since encountered setbacks ranging from parachute issues to flammable materials being used inside the spacecraft. With Starliner undergoing repairs, replacements of material, and additional parachute tests, Boeing has announced the launch date of Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT), which is currently scheduled for April 14th, 2024. 

While Boeing is still working through the testing campaign of Starliner, SpaceX has also encountered problems with their Dragon spacecraft throughout its operations. SpaceX has had a couple of close calls with their parachute deployments. During both the Crew-2 and CRS-24 missions, one of Dragon’s four main parachutes lagged by over a minute to deploy. After being investigated by SpaceX and NASA, it was determined that Dragon was still within its safety margins, despite the lag. 

These anomalies and the setbacks that occur as a result are a reminder of the reason for why the agency selected more than one spacecraft to operate under the Commercial Crew Program; dissimilar redundancy. This is the idea that different systems are unlikely to carry the same flaws. NASA chose two different spacecraft, built and operated by different companies, and flown on different launch vehicles, because they utilize different systems. If one of these systems has a flaw, the other can still operate and fulfill the overall mission. In this case, by contracting both SpaceX and Boeing, NASA can guarantee the United State’s ability to send humans to and from orbit. Dissimilar redundancy has already proved itself as a critical part of the architecture of the Commercial Crew Program, as SpaceX’s Dragon is performing crew rotations while Boeing’s Starliner finishes its testing phase. 

Now that Boeing is working towards a set date for the launch of CFT, the Commercial Crew Program will soon consist of its planned two vehicles. Not only will this take some of the weight off of SpaceX’s Dragon, but it will add another layer to the redundancy in sending astronauts to and from the ISS. 

This past November marked the 25th anniversary of the ISS being in orbit. This is undeniably a momentous achievement, but it is a reminder that the ISS is approaching the end of its operational lifetime. Major pieces of hardware are aging, and as a result many have even begun to fail, necessitating expensive and time consuming repairs. There is still a heavy amount of uncertainty in this realm, however NASA has been investigating the best ways to transition away from the ISS, possibly as soon as the early 2030s. While this does mean the ISS will soon reach the end of its operational lifetime, other space stations are already on the way in the form of the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations program. Rather than being operated by a coalition of governments like the ISS, these stations will be run by commercial providers, with work currently ongoing to determine the best structure for management. 

Some of these proposed space stations are Axiom Space’s Axiom Orbital Segment, Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef, and Voyager Space’s Starlab. Utilizing new techniques under commercial oversight, these companies aim to lower the cost of living and working in orbit, facilitating the ability to perform more experiments and develop state of the art technology. Additionally, Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef already plans to utilize Boeing’s Starliner capsule and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, another commercially developed spacecraft that will soon send cargo, and potentially, to and from LEO. The onset of commercialized space stations already demonstrates the trend that the industry is following, gain experience with government before moving towards the private sector.

Artist’s interpretation of Blue Origin’s future Orbital Reef space station.
Credit: Blue Origin

The next endeavor of public and private spaceflight is to reach the lunar surface. In 2019, NASA requested design proposals from commercial partners which would return humanity to the moon under the Artemis Program. This program will see international astronauts descend to the lunar surface in commercially developed landers as part of the Human Landing System program. In 2021, NASA selected a dedicated lunar variant of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle as the primary winner. Two years later, NASA selected an additional lander to be developed by Blue Origin as part of the Sustainable Lander Development program, a follow on to the initial HLS bid. Other companies such as Boeing and Dynetics have also submitted proposals for a human landing system, however only SpaceX and Blue Origin are contracted by NASA at this time. At this point it is clear; the next vehicle to land humans on the lunar surface will be one that has been commercially developed.

While the HLS program is exciting, it has had its fair share of setbacks over the past few years.  When NASA awarded their initial contract to SpaceX in 2021, they only had the funding for one proposal. As a result, conflict and legal battles sprung out between Blue Origin and the US government. This was eventually settled in court, and SpaceX was cleared to proceed their work on the HLS system. Only a couple years later, Blue Origin was contracted by NASA to develop the second Human Landing System for the Artemis Program.

While some members of the public and government saw this as a bailout for Blue Origin, the selection of a second lunar lander was necessary. It is another perfect example of NASA utilizing dissimilar redundancy, the same reason for why both SpaceX and Boeing were selected to reliably shuttle astronauts to and from the space station. 

The need for a second lunar lander has already been demonstrated. In November 2023, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report detailing the challenges that are yet to be overcome prior to the Artemis III mission, the first mission of the Artemis program which will utilize HLS. One of their major areas of concern was SpaceX’s progress on Starship development. According to the GAO:

“As of September 2023, the Human Landing System program had delayed eight of 13 key events by at least 6 months. Two of these events have been delayed to 2025—the year the lander is planned to launch.”

SpaceX plans for Starship to be one of the most game changing players in the world of spaceflight, but it is still highly experimental and subject to delays. Although SpaceX’s proposal for HLS was the cheapest and most capable, it has become one of holdup points for the Artemis III mission, as many technology demonstrations are yet to take place. Therefore, a second lunar lander could help mitigate delays of this nature in the future. 

Going to the moon is an order of magnitude more dangerous and complicated than orbiting the Earth. If one system fails, NASA risks stranding astronauts on the surface of the moon with no way to get back to Earth. The utilization of two entirely different lunar landers and launch systems gives NASA the guarantee that they can maintain a reliable human presence on the lunar surface, regardless of if one of the two selected landers is temporarily grounded.

Artist’s interpretation of SpaceX’s lunar Starship on the surface of the moon.
Credit: SpaceX

Commercial spaceflight has seen widespread growth and maturation over the last decade, and while it appears to be proven, it is still important to tread these waters carefully. The transition from Commercial Cargo to Commercial Crew has gone relatively smoothly, and in just a few short months will kick into full gear. However, the transition from commercial crew in LEO to commercial crew on the lunar surface has seen some initial teething problems as the Artemis program gets off the ground.. As of the writing of this article, only one nation has safely landed and returned astronauts from the surface of the moon, and only three others have reached the moon at all.

Going to the moon is hard, and going to the moon safely is even harder. It is critical that NASA and their commercial partners take any steps necessary to accomplish this correctly. As the aerospace industry integrates commercial spaceflight into universal operations, such as the Commercial Crew and Artemis Programs, it is crucial that no steps are glossed over and that the safety of astronauts continue to be the number one priority for all parties involved. If all is done properly, the world can count on commercial partners helping to bring us to the moon, mars, and beyond.

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