NASA chooses SpaceX to return US astronauts to space

By Phil Plait | August 3, 2012 11:50 am

[Note (added at 18:00 MDT): Some folks are saying the headline here is misleading, and on further thought I see the point. It’s not that NASA selected SpaceX to return astronauts to space; it was one of three companies and in my opinion (based on scheduling) that they’ll be the first to do so. I don’t like changing headlines on posts for various reasons, so I’ve decided to keep this one intact and leave this note here at the top of the post so everyone sees it.]

BIG news: NASA announced this morning that it has awarded a total of $1.1 billion in grants to three different companies to put American astronauts back into space. The kicker: they chose SpaceX as the company, and their Falcon rocket as the vehicle, to be the first to return US astronauts to space from American soil… and this may happen as soon as 2015!

NASA retired the Space Shuttle last year, and has had to rely on foreign partners to launch American astronauts into orbit ever since. While NASA is developing a new launch system (that is, a human-rated rocket), it won’t be ready for quite some time.

In May, SpaceX showed that it can successfully launch an uncrewed rocket and capsule into orbit and dock with the International Space Station. Riding on the wave of this mission, NASA is giving SpaceX $440 million dollars to develop and build the hardware needed to launch humans into orbit.

SpaceX has created this (pretty cool) promo video with the highlights:

The Dragon capsule is already essentially ready to carry humans, but after the two Shuttle disasters, NASA has more stringent requirements for human safety that must be met. What this boils down to is an abort system that can carry the crew away safely in case of a catastrophic problem. SpaceX is designing a rocket system for the Dragon capsule that will have sufficient power to take it rapidly away from the Falcon rocket and get the astronauts on board back on Earth safely, which may involve either an ocean splashdown (which the Dragon capsule is designed for anyway) or the ability to touchdown on the ground on landing legs. It will also work at any point of the mission, from the moment of launch to just before achieving orbit.

SpaceX expects to have this system built and ready to go very soon – they announced they will be ready for their first crewed flight as early as 2015. That’s about the timeframe that’s been expected for a while now, but the company had to prove itself with the mission in May, and also win this new NASA contract. Between now and then they plan 10 cargo flights to the space station as well which will help iron out any equipment wrinkles and prep them for human flight.

This really is huge news. There has been a lot of rending of garments and tearing of hair online and in political speeches about NASA not being able to put humans in space. I have written about this myself many, many times, and as I’ve said I’m not convinced at this stage of history that NASA should be building rockets for the "routine" launching of people and supplies to orbit. Their job is to innovate and clear the path, to look ahead, while leaner, more flexible companies like SpaceX can follow. The United States is a long way yet from an actual launch of humans back into orbit, but this is a giant stride forward.

And there’s more: NASA also awarded the Sierra Nevada Corporation $212 million to continue to develop their Dream Chaser space plane, a vehicle that will be mounted on top of a rocket and capable of bringing humans to and from low Earth orbit as well. Testing of the Dream Chaser has been going pretty well, and the company expects to be able to start launching humans into space in 2016. This is also fantastic news! The more people we have building these vehicles, the better. And since Sierra Nevada’s HQ is down the road from me in Louisville, Colorado, this gives this news a little bit of an added kick for me.

Boeing actually received the largest share of the NASA grant, getting $460 million to develop their CST-100 spacecraft, which looks much like NASA’s Orion capsule (itself a capsule much like that of Apollo; a proven design). and can be mounted on a variety of rockets to launch humans to low-Earth orbit.

I hear so many people lamenting NASA’s lack of ability to launch humans into space. I agree, and think we should be doing this, but I think a lot of these complaints are misguided – a lot of these complaints are about private industry, saying NASA should be developing this tech. I disagree. I strongly feel that NASA partnering with private industry is the best and strongest way to get back into space and stay there. It’s the best of both worlds: NASA’s government backing and history gives them some stability which private enterprise may lack, and the companies themselves don’t have the massive bureaucratic overhead NASA is saddled with.

I just hope that with this, and with more success, both the White House and Congress will see that NASA and private industry are critical to our future in space, and fund these ventures as fully as possible. Our future in space is – for the moment – bright and alluring. May it always be so.

Related Posts:

History is made as Dragon splashes down safely in the Pacific!
Discovery makes one final flight… but we must move on.
Debating space
Will ATK beat everyone into space?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space, Top Post

Comments (39)

  1. Charles Boyer

    I think that NASA made the proper choices…SpaceX, Boeing and SNC Space Services are well on their way to stacking their booster and capsule and then putting people onboard. ATK has nothing more than a design that’s a Franken-rocket at best. Besides, they have SLS responsibilities.

    Also, people who lament the flight gap are overlooking the fact that there was nearly a six year gap between the last of Project Apollo and the Space Transportation System flights. (24 July 1975 – 12 April 1981.) Looks like there will be about the same gap between STS and the first of these new systems, except this time there will be options if one should falter in their development schedule.

    And then there’s Orion/SLS, which if funded, will be another vector for getting Americans and their partners off the rock and into the void.

  2. One small correction: the launch escape system can save astronauts even before launch, as this happened int the case of Soyuz-T-10-1 in 1983 (both cosmonauts escaped with minor injuries).

  3. Ian

    I know you’re a big SpaceX cheerleader, but I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that SpaceX has already been selected to carry NASA astronauts to space. (Believe me I want them to be as successful as anyone else, I’m not here SpaceX bashing) The award today was to continue the competition between 3 different designs. It’s most likely that there will only be enough NASA business to support 1 of the three companies, at least for transport solely to the ISS.

    Nothing against Mr. Musk, but he hasn’t exactly had a 100% success rate on his predictions for when certain capabilities will come on line. Lesson – Space flight is hard.

    This is a great step forward and hopefully we’ll see Americans flying on American rockets sooner rather than later.

  4. Carey

    And here I thought Sierra Nevada just made really good beer. Nice work!

  5. Chris

    It seems like the future just kind of snuck up on us. Too bad SpaceX isn’t a public company. I’d like to buy some stock in them.

  6. gopher65

    Chris: Unfortunately, SpaceX is going public very soon. Why unfortunately? Because as soon as that happens they’ll start worrying less about long term innovation, and more about short term innovation (ie, the kind that leads to higher immediate profits and thus a higher stock price).

    At that point I’ll pretty much write the company off.

  7. Dan

    Very cool. But I’m surprised to see the crew capsule returns to Earth using rockets and lands on the ground (according to the video. Right before the astronauts high five each other). Isn’t it easier/safer to parachute into the ocean?

  8. AliCali

    @ 7 Dan:

    “…I’m surprised to see the crew capsule returns to Earth using rockets and lands on the ground (according to the video. Right before the astronauts high five each other). Isn’t it easier/safer to parachute into the ocean?”

    I suppose we could research it a bit, but I wonder if the rockets used to land is the same ones used to eject the capsule in case of failure. Maybe instead of adding a new system, they just use a system that’s there anyway for a different purpose. Less systems means less cost, less stuff to launch, and less chance of things failing or getting tangled up with something else.

  9. Jim Howard

    Great news Phil!

    @gopher65 – Musk has said he will retain controlling interest in SpaceX, so their management and goals will not change after the IPO.

  10. Chris


    As long as Romney and Bain Capital stay away, SpaceX should keep innovating.

  11. Steve D

    Election 2016: “Private Enterprise is solely responsible for getting Americans into Space” (if we don’t count the 50 years of experience and hundreds of billions of dollars contributed by NASA to develop the technology.

  12. David S

    Steve D: I’m pretty sure most space components were developed, built and perfected by private enterprise. The liquid hydrogen rocket, for instance, was developed by Pratt & Whitney back in the 1950’s. NASA coordinated plans, but private industry developed the technology.

  13. Brian W

    Agreed with a few of the other commentators – your headline is very misleading. SpaceX was not chosen to replace the Shuttle. NASA selected SpaceX as one of three companies that are competing to replace the Shuttle, and actually Boeing is getting more money than SpaceX. And more importantly, this funding is only through the Critical Design Review (CDR) stage (and actually just the PDR for SierraNevada).

    In the end it may be SpaceX that comes out on top, or perhaps all three might see some share of the business. But that’s yet to be seen.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    Congratulations SpaceX. Can’t fly astronauts into space on new craft of their own soon enough for my liking. :-)

  15. Dr. Strangelobe

    DR. Plait, have you any details of the abort system? The only type that I know of, is the old ‘rocket-tower-on-top-of-the-capsule’, fromMercury onward; there is nothing visible in the promotional video.

  16. Brian Too

    SpaceX is off to a terrific start. I understand those abort sytems are tricky, high performance marvels, when they work correctly.

  17. Robin

    @David S (#12): Lewis Research Center (now NASA Glenn Research Center) had been research LiH as a fuel for quite a while and by 1958 had a working LiH powered thrust chamber.

  18. gopher65

    Dr. Strangelobe: The launch abort system is actually what they use to land in that video. It is a “pusher” LAS rather than a “puller” LAS like those previous built. The “pullers” were a rocket tower that was placed on top of the capsule. It would pull the capsule away in the event of any problems. SpaceX’s new system (and the other new one being developed by Blue Origin) are “pusher” systems, where the LAS is built right into the bottom of the sides of the capsule.

    Pushers are a bit more complicated, but they give you abort capability basically all the way to second stage separation, if they’re designed well. Contrast that with puller tower systems that have to be jettisoned early on in the launch (which is a fairly dangerous separation event in and of itself), and you can see the benefits. Tower LAS are really only good for protecting against launch pad disasters and things that happen immediately after launch. Pushers are good for anything.

    The other big advantage to pushers is that since you carry them all the way to orbit, you can potentially use them even if you don’t have a launch abort! Some designs call for their use as fairly powerful in-orbit maneuvering thrusters, while others (like SpaceX) want to use them for about 2 minutes of powered landing duty on every trip. Either idea is great, and ensures that the LAS doesn’t go to waste on the (hopefully) 99+% of launches that don’t end in failure.

  19. The Mutt

    $440 million to put an American in space sounds like a bargain.

    Hell, we spend that much every month to put a Muslim in the ground.

  20. gopher65

    The Mutt: During the height of the Iraqi war, the US military was spending that much every 9 hours or so. People have no concept of how much that war cost the US.

  21. @7. Dan :

    Very cool. But I’m surprised to see the crew capsule returns to Earth using rockets and lands on the ground (according to the video. Right before the astronauts high five each other). Isn’t it easier/safer to parachute into the ocean?

    If only he were alive today you could ask Gus Grissom about that! 😉

    His sub-orbital flight ended with his Liberty Bell capsule sinking and him nearly drowning after the hatch blew prematurely. (Soundless original Youtube footage linked to my name here.)

    Landing is always going to have some risks to it whether they land on water, land or snow.

    The Russians have traditionally landed their capsules on land having the vast steppe areas to do so, the US has usually splashed down or landed on runways. Each option has its pros and cons.

    Land landings avoid the need for having ships immediately on hand to recover the craft & greatly reduces the chances of loss by sinking and drowning. (Channelling Cap’n Obvious.)

    PS. Wonder whether they’ve considered using VTOL techniques a la the Harrier jump jet for landing from space to Earth at all?

  22. F16 guy

    1. How automated is the SpaceX system to the ISS ? Looks like very little training for the astronauts will be involved, compared to the Space Shuttle. Bring a good thick book to read. Am I correct ?

    2. Another 4 years of Barry Sotero, and I suspect this program will get financially devastated too.

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ F16 guy : (2) Barry Sotero? You mean President Bracak Hussein Obama I take it?

    Yeah, I dunno. US financial situation seems to be pretty bad as are things globally economics~wise. Not sure Mitt Romney is the best choice to fix things either or that, frankly, any one person can.

    More Obama probably means more of the same which ain’t good but then changing to Romney risks things getting worse, not sure I like his plans and priorities much either. A whole other off thread topic that one.

    (1) Its certainly no Space Shuttle for good and for ill. I’m pretty sure tho’ they’ll still be plenty of training require dand they’ll be kept pretty busy! 😉

    @20. gopher65 :

    The Mutt: During the height of the Iraqi war, the US military was spending that much every 9 hours or so. People have no concept of how much that war cost the US.

    I haven’t read it but I’ve seen in bookstores a tome entitled The Trillion Dollar War about that conflict – and, of course, we’re not just talking money but lives and opportunities missed for other things and other priorities.

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    Continued : @20. gopher65 :

    … The Iraq war has ultimately been a costly blunder that’s for sure although getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny isn’t – in my view – something we need to apologise for.

    The situation Iraq~wise went catastrophically sour afterwards once Saddam was gone when the Iraqis looted and ravaged their own land then fought their sectarian civil war with Al-Quaida-in-Iraq’s murderous “assistence” (Remember that Late unlamented Al-Zarqawi terrorist?) rather than the Iraqis behaving better as optimistically expected beforehand though no doubting that.

    I think Saddam himself needs to get more blame than the lefties usually remember to give him – wasn’t solely Bush II & the neocons fault although the previous POTUS did miscalculate and in hindsight, well, mistakes were made aplenty weren’t they? Hindsight .. if we knew then what we know now, well pointless thinking about it really. Naught to be done ’bout it now. Just try to avoid repeating similar mistakes as we no doubt make new ones. That’s politics and human nature.

    Anyhow, its a whole other very separate off topic issue. :-(

    @19. The Mutt :

    $440 million to put an American in space sounds like a bargain.
    Hell, we spend that much every month to put a Muslim in the ground.

    Not just *a* Muslim but *lots* of murderous Jihadist thugs put in the ground each month though – unless you’re specifically referring to taking out Osama bin Laden or another such operation.

  25. Menyambal

    I like the landing-rocket system. It was explained up there, but some folks don’t seem to get the beauty of it.

    The capsule has rocket nozzles out of the sides, in pairs, pointed down (and somewhat out). If something goes wrong before, during or after launch, those rockets fire and carry the capsule up and out of danger. They are also used for landing, whether normally or after an emergency.

    As was said, this allows the emergency escape system to be put to good use, not just thrown away after being carried up. It also gives the capsule control over the landing area, as the system can be directed—it probably can put down on the helipad back at headquarters after every flight.

    It also puts the rocket fuel in the capsule, more than is carried for the maneuvering jets, but it cuts out the parachute system. It will probably serve to de-orbit the capsule in a different emergency, but that might not leave enough fuel to land. Hmm, I wonder what the back-up plan is …

  26. Chris

    @24 Messier Tidy Upper

    Unfortunately it’s not just the murderous Jihadist thugs who have been killed. Many innocents have also been killed. Most just in the wrong place at the wrong time. War is very messy.

  27. Menyambal

    War is very messy, especially when there is a great deal of carelessness. Most of the IEDs are made from explosives that were securely locked up before the trouble started, but the storage bunkers were cut open by a survey/inventory team of the “good guys”, who counted everything and left the bunkers unlocked. That museum that was looted was known to be a target for looters, and the American army was BEGGED to send a squad to guard it, but refused. And, of course, W Bush was warned about 9/11, but none of his people could imagine airplanes hitting buildings—despite Tom Clancy, the Lone Gunmen TV show, and everybody who ever used Flight Simulator.

    But, by God, we are getting revenge for the three thousand Americans killed by going off to the wrong country and killing three thousand American soldiers. Oh, and a few hundred thousand not-Americans.

  28. The more I think about this whole situation, the more I like the idea of NASA sticking to science and leaving the “heavy lifting” to industry. NASA would never find a way to make going into space pay, as a government agency they have no need to and no motivation to. Private industry has to, or they cannot stay in the game. Privatization of most of this stuff is probably the only way we ever become a space faring species. Public/private partnerships in space are, I think, what is going to get us there.

  29. gopher65


    They don’t actually remove the parachute system. It is the emergency backup landing system. The capsule will also always retain the ability to land in water, even when it isn’t planned that it will be doing so (just in case).

    But since the LAS would be carried all the way to orbit anyway, might as well use it for a smoother, controlled landing, even though the parachutes work just fine.

  30. Hrune

    I don’t think NASA should be making any launch vehicles. They should be making spaceships – design and produce them in 10t chunks, launch them via private companies, assemble in orbit and explore. The money that goes to SLS would probably be adequate for orbital assebly yard, orbital refuelling station and a few spaceships that would stay up there, doing mission after mission…

  31. Menyambal

    Thanks, gopher65. That’s what I thought was probably the case, but didn’t know. Redundancy and safety and a backup plan.

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    @26. Chris :

    @24 Messier Tidy Upper : Unfortunately it’s not just the murderous Jihadist thugs who have been killed. Many innocents have also been killed. Most just in the wrong place at the wrong time. War is very messy.

    Yes. That’s very true and very sad and inevitable and always been the case throughout all human history. War is a horrible, messy thing. Always has been, still is despite our efforts to make it, well, slightly less so. :-(

    This is a whole other and very different and much more political topic which I don’t really want to discuss here. I’ll just note that the current war and its causes isn’t as simple as some seem to claim, there’s plenty of blame on both sides – not just the USA’s. Yes, the Bush administration made many bad errors here, no question of that – but *everything* isn’t *just* their cause and fault. :-(

    One last thing to remember – in this war – the war on the Jihadists one side, the Western Coalition of willing nations is trying to minimise civilian casualties and is hurt by them, the other side – the Jihadists – is hiding amongst civilians using them as human shields, firing from behind them to draw the inevitable retatilation and also deliberately blowing up innocent civilians and maximimising the casualties because they grotesquely benefit from the sectarian chaos and bloodshed that ensues. :-(

  33. JMW

    Much though I’d like to comment on the Iraq war, this isn’t the forum for it.

    I’m not sure I understand people complaining about NASA contracting with private industry to launch astronauts to space.

    If you go back to Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle, NASA was a contracting agency. They didn’t build all that stuff themselves, they contracted with private industry – companies like McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, etc., to build the actual equipment. NASA would design the rockets, spacecraft and instruments, and then award contracts to build particular parts to different companies around the country. Then, NASA would receive the components, assemble them, and launch them (although the contracting companies were heavily involved in those steps as well).

    This way, NASA is changing the way it gets to orbit. Instead of designing the spacecraft, they merely design the capabilities and let the private company do the detailed design. Instead of handling component assembly, they let the private company do that. And instead of running the launch operations, they let the private company do that.

    So I don’t see the big deal.

  34. Woody Tanaka

    “While NASA is developing a new launch system (that is, a human-rated rocket), it won’t be ready for quite some time.”

    Oh, don’t be so naive. Once these private companies start privitizing the profits (having socialized the risks and R&D costs) what do you think the odds are that they’ll hire lobbyist in Washington and make campaign donations to certain politicians to eliminate through legislation NASA from ever competing with these companies?? NASA just gave away human spaceflight in the US to private businessmen. Suckers.

  35. Ferris Valyn

    Woody – Newsflash – that has been the situation from day 1 with NASA. Don’t believe me? Learn about the situation with Constellation, and the delegation that fought to protect it.

    Space has had privatized profits, and that includes all NASA contractors. NASA has had a long love affair with the cost plus contracting world.

    The real question has been and is whether we can actually make space cost effective, whether we can commercialize space. Because THAT will actually require companies to focus on delivering results, not merely effort.

  36. Woody Tanaka


    That was nothing. Wait until private capitalists’ profits are on the line.

    And the cost-plus contracting is a problem that should have long ago been solved. The problem is that this country is too in love with these corporations to do so.

    And as for “commercializing” space? No thanks. Look what businesspeople — I would say snakes in suits, but I don’t want to insult snakes — have done to “deliver result” on Earth and how they’ve put profits over people which resulted in untold suffering and destroyed the environment, all to put a dollar in their pockets.

    I would rather we do the sensible thing and cut the military in half and use that money to keep space out of the hands of the robber-barons and capitalist criminals.

  37. Ferris Valyn

    There profits have been on the line a long time. Companies like ATK spent a LOT of money trying to keep the former program, Constellation, going as the main program. They did so because they were making a LOT of money. Let me give you a little data.

    The US spent somewhere between $5-10 Billion on the Ares I rocket. And that never flew. In fact, they only thing to fly from that was the Ares I-X, and that test flight alone cost $445 Million (and its test benefits are questionable in this case).

    So, as I said, if you don’t think that they aren’t already lobbying in a huge way because their profits are on the line, you are deluding yourself. To put it bluntly, space is already in the hands of the
    “robber-barons.” The question is, can we get them to do something useful with it or not.

    And I doubt your problem is really about space, but its about more fundamental issues. But my suggestion for that is to talk about it elsewhere.

    And lets turn this discussion to something slightly more interesting – would you block the development of what is going on with SpaceShipTwo?

  38. Chuck

    @JMW I’m not 100% but I do not think NASA gets things produced all over the world. They are pretty strict to American only, as not to divulge American rocket tech.

    I think Elon Musk is a international hero for putting long term exploration and habitation on his list of goals. Without people like him doing what he preaches I have feared for space exploration for a long time!

  39. Bob

    I think the idea of NASA ‘giving’ away manned spaceflight is the best thing to happen since perhaps the Apollo landings. It’s something I believe many of us having been eagerly awaiting all our lives.

    What the government has not taken into account, in my opinion, is that I firmly believe there are vast amounts of money to be made in space. Once private launch capabilities are up and running, there will be companies looking for industrial opportunities that are uniquely suited for zero gravity.

    And, in any case, we’ll have Americans developing space flight capability. Would we really want to cede this to the Chinese or Indians or Japanese? They’ll be up there soon enough, but we need to be there as well.


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