The Commercial Crew Program was first announced in December 2009. The objectives of the program set out by NASA was to stimulate the commercial space industry; facilitate commercial demonstration of crew transportation abilities; and achieve safer, more reliable, more cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit. Following the finale of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the program became even more significant as a gap appeared where no human spaceflight would launch from American soil for several years.
The program utilised a multi-phase approach to reduce the competitors to a final selection of just two companies.
The first phase was known as CCDev 1, where five companies received a portion of $50 million. In total, NASA received proposals from thirty-six companies. The chosen five consisted of Blue Origin ($3.7 million for innovative LAS), Boeing ($18 million for CST-100 development), Paragon Space Development Corporation ($1.4 million for plug-and-play life support system), Sierra Nevada Corporation ($20 million for Dream Chaser development), and United Launch Alliance ($6.7 million for an Emergency Detection System).
A second set of proposals were received in 2011. NASA awarded almost $270 million to four companies for developing human-rated space vehicles that would fly astronauts to the ISS from American soil once more, following the end of the Space Shuttle Program. The four companies who were awarded money were Blue Origin ($22 million), Sierra Nevada Corporation ($80 million for continued development of the Dream Chaser), SpaceX ($75 million for an integration launch abort system for the Dragon spacecraft), and Boeing ($92.3 million for continued development of CST-100).
The process continued into 2012, with even more money being given to the leading companies. Sierra Nevada Corporation received $212.5 million for further development on Dream Chaser, SpaceX received $440 million for further development of both the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon 9 rocket, and Boeing received $460 million for further development of the CST-100 spacecraft.
On September 16 2014, NASA announced that Boeing and SpaceX received contracts for the transportation of crew to the ISS. Boeing were given $4.2 billion and SpaceX were given $2.6 billion. The contract offered asks both companies to develop, test and certify their space vehicles, then fly up to six operational flights to the ISS. The unfortunate loser of this fantastic advancement in commercial spaceflight was Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser. Despite a protest, the company were unable to achieve any further funding and will have to further develop their winged vehicle with their own cash.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon
Crew Dragon is the second version of the Dragon spacecraft. First revealed in May 2014, the spacecraft will be human-rated, performing crew transport between Earth and the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. The spacecraft will fly atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. Up to seven astronauts will be able to ride aboard what Elon Musk calls a 21st Century space vehicle.
The launch pad abort test of the Crew Dragon occurred on May 6 2015. This tested the spacecraft’s ability to quickly leave a rocket disaster and therefore keep the crew alive. The Crew Dragon could make its first flight as early as late 2016, where an unmanned test flight to the ISS would occur. However, this date is not set in stone. Similarly, if all goes to plan the first manned mission of the spacecraft could occur as soon as late 2017.
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner
The Boeing Crew Space Transportation system will also be transporting crew to the International Space Station from 2017. The space capsule can transport up to seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, to low-Earth orbit. The vehicle will have flight compatibility with rockets Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9 and the planned Vulcan rocket announced in 2015. The vehicle will have the ability to stay in orbit for up to seven months, and could be reused up to ten times.
Unlike SpaceX, Boeing are leaving their pad abort test until just months before the debut launch. Currently scheduled for February 2017, the capsule will be expected to prove that it can escape a catastrophic issue with the rocket. If successful, an unscrewed test mission will launch to the ISS in April 2017 and a crewed version in July. However, these dates are optimistic and are likely to change.