With SpaceX, Boeing, NASA Ready to Move Forward With Commercial Crew Missions

The missions are expected to save money and end reliance on Russia.

— -- With SpaceX being awarded a commercial crew contract from NASA, the space agency is moving forward with its plan to charter its own flights to the International Space Station -- saving money and ending reliance on Russia's Soyuz.

While Boeing received its first order for sending a crewed flight to space in May, NASA awarded the second contract on Friday to Elon Musk's SpaceX. The commercial space company also has a contract for cargo resupply missions to the ISS, however has been temporarily sidelined following the loss of its Dragon cargo vessel in June.

"It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan," Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in a statement.

While it's unknown which company will be the first to ferry astronauts into space, here's a look at what we know about the plan to use commercial spacecraft.

Timeframe

NASA is aiming for the first commercial crew mission to blast off in late 2017.

The Spacecraft

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner can hold up to seven crew members and stands out for its weld-less design and LED sky lighting. SpaceX showed off the safety capabilities of its Crew Dragon during a launch abort test in May. The vessels has four windows that will provide stunning views of Earth, the moon and beyond as astronauts travel to the ISS.

Why This Is a Big Deal for NASA

NASA will no longer have to pay the Russian Federal Space Agency for seats on board the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. Utilizing commercial crew missions will allow NASA to save money while also ending a reliance on Russia's space program.

“Commercial crew launches are really important for helping us meet the demand for research on the space station because it allows us to increase the crew to seven," Julie Robinson, chief scientist for ISS, said in a statement. "Over the long term, it also sets the foundation for scientific access to future commercial research platforms in low-Earth orbit."