In what comes as a shock to Elon Musk’s SpaceX fans, the company has announced that it is abandoning its plan to make an astronaut spacecraft that is reusable for NASA. This essentially leaves Boeing as the sole private company developing such vehicles for the U.S. space agency.
Abandoning reusable spacecraft plan
SpaceX was one of the few companies that had won contracts for developing a reusable spacecraft for astronauts from NASA. The company succeeded in creating a vehicle that could transport goods from Earth to the International Space Station (ISS) and back home. This gave SpaceX the confidence to build a reusable spacecraft for astronauts.
In 2014, Musk predicted that the company would develop a capsule that could land on the surface of the Earth with precision rather than splashing down on water. However, all such hopes seem to have been misplaced after the company found that it would not be economically viable to pursue the plan.
The reusable cargo capsule that SpaceX has designed for NASA is only capable of landing on water. Researchers at the company soon found that when the capsule submerges in ocean water, it gets corroded to a great extent.
As such, they had to tear it down and replace several components in order to make it ready for another journey to the ISS. This turned out to be a time-consuming and expensive process. Plus, SpaceX is nowhere near developing a spacecraft capable of precision landing on the Earth’s surface. As such, the only thing Musk could do is to pull the plug on the project.
“SpaceX’s quiet abandonment of what had been key selling points for Crew Dragon is a significant setback for SpaceX. It means Boeing will be the only company building a reusable space capsule for astronauts, and its spacecraft — called Starliner — will be the only one that touches down on land. That seems to be a reversal of fortunes for Musk, who once criticized the Boeing concept as backward-looking,” says an article in Forbes.
SpaceX’s exit means that the Boeing CST-100 Starliner is the only commercial aircraft that will be used by NASA for sending their astronauts to the ISS. Boeing had received funding of US$4.2 billion from the space agency for the development of the project. The Starliner is being designed to house up to seven astronauts at a time and will use Atlas V rockets to ride into space.
To make the process of docking with the ISS smoother, the spacecraft will also be equipped with wireless Internet. When the Starliner nears the ISS, the onboard system will take control of the docking procedure and ensure that the spacecraft safely attaches itself to the station. This will allow the astronauts to handle other important processes during docking.
The Boeing Starliner can remain attached to the ISS for about 210 days. And when astronauts return back to Earth, they can land on the surface rather than splash into the ocean. Both the spacecraft and the landing system can be used again for another journey into space.
As of now, NASA uses Russia’s Soyuz Spacecraft to send its astronauts to space since it had abandoned its space shuttle program in 2011. But when the Boeing Starliner becomes fully functional, it will allow NASA to ditch its dependence on Russian technologies and rely on American companies.