NASA will give SpaceX more crewed flights to cover for Boeing's delays

They're 'backups' to ensure ISS missions arrive on time.

SpaceX, Flickr

Boeing's continued Starliner delays have prompted NASA to hedge its bets. SpaceNews reports NASA plans to order as many as three more crewed SpaceX flights to ensure "uninterrupted" US trips to the International Space Station as soon as 2023. The company's Crew Dragon is the only system that meets partner country and safety requirements in the necessary time window, the agency said. In other words, NASA doesn't want to be without a ride to the ISS if Boeing isn't ready.

NASA was happy Boeing was focusing on "safety over schedule" for Starliner after it delayed a second orbital test to investigate an oxidizer isolation valve problem. However, that still left the administration in a bind. It was "critical" to obtain additional flights now to maintain a US foothold on the ISS, associate administrator Kathy Lueders said.

This doesn't put Boeing's capsule in danger. NASA still wanted two different crew systems to guarantee redundancy, and it planned to alternate between Crew Dragon and Starliner once both were available. Officials also stressed that the deal didn't prevent NASA from changing the contract to obtain additional flights.

Even so, the intended purchase is a blow for Boeing. Starliner plays a key role in Boeing's commercial spaceflight program and, unofficially, serves as proof the transportation veteran can compete with a fast-moving 'newcomer' like SpaceX in the private space race. The Crew Dragon backup plans reflect some lost confidence in Boeing, even if the move is only temporary.