SpaceX is poised to launch astronauts into space this spring. Here’s how SpaceX and Boeing became NASA’s best shot at resurrecting American spaceflight.

  • SpaceX completed an explosive test on Sunday that showed its Crew Dragon capsule can whisk astronauts to safety in the event of a rocket failure.
  • The test was part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, a partnership between the space agency and private companies to build spaceships that can ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
  • Since 2011, NASA has been buying seats for its astronauts on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. The program is meant to end that practice.
  • Boeing is also building a spaceship as part of the Commercial Crew program, but SpaceX is on track to launch astronauts first.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SpaceX launched one of its Falcon 9 rockets on Sunday, only to watch it erupt in a ball of fire.

But the explosion was intentional and went exactly as planned. It was the final step in a long process of testing the company’s Crew Dragon capsule ⁠- a spaceship designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Boeing has designed a similar spacecraft, and the two companies are racing to fly NASA astronauts on US-made spacecraft for the first time in nearly a decade.

Since NASA ended its space-shuttle program in 2011, the agency has relied exclusively on Russia to ferry its astronauts to and from orbit in Soyuz spacecraft. But those seats have gotten increasingly expensive: A single round-trip seat now costs NASA about $85 million. So the space agency launched its Commercial Crew program to spur the development of new American-made spacecraft.

The program put private companies in competition for billions of dollars’ worth of government contracts. SpaceX and Boeing came out on top.

SpaceX’s latest test has teed Elon Musk’s rocket company up to launch its first-ever human passengers this spring.

“This critical test puts us on the cusp of once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, tweeted shortly after the mission.

Here’s how SpaceX and Boeing became NASA’s best shot at resurrecting American spaceflight.


Atlantis, NASA’s last space shuttle, launched and landed in July 2011. It was the last US rocket-and-spaceship system to carry astronauts to and from space.

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The final space shuttle mission, Atlantis STS-135, lifts off from launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, July 8, 2011.
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Scott Audette/Reuters

After 135 shuttle missions, NASA retired the program so it could direct funds towards long-term missions to the moon and eventually Mars.


Since then, NASA has relied on Russia’s Soyuz system to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

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The Soyuz MS-09 spacecraft docked to the International Space Station, August 29, 2018.
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NASA via Flickr

Soyuz is the only human-rated spacecraft used to get people to and from the $150 billion, football-field-size laboratory that orbits Earth every 90 minutes.


Russia has nearly quadrupled its prices for NASA over a decade.

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Photographers take pictures as the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft, carrying US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin, blasts off to the International Space Station (ISS) from the launchpad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome on October 11, 2018.
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Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

In 2008, a single round-trip flight for a NASA astronaut cost about $22 million; by 2018, that price had soared to about $81 million. Today the price is about $85 million, according to CNN.


Plus, after two recent incidents, concerns about the reliability and safety of Soyuz rockets are growing.

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Cosmonauts used a knife and scissor tool during a spacewalk to locate a hole in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft at the International Space Station on December 11, 2018.
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NASA TV/YouTube; Business Insider

In August 2018, a Soyuz began leaking air into space while attached to the space station. A small hole was found and investigated by cosmonauts. Russian authorities think the hole came from a manufacturing accident with a drill that was hastily covered up.

Then that October, a Soyuz rocket failed during launch. The space capsule carrying one American and one Russian crew member automatically jettisoned away, and they walked away uninjured.


NASA established the Commercial Crew Program in 2010. The competition asked private companies to develop new astronaut-ready spacecraft.

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the company’s Crew Dragon attached, rolls out of the company’s hangar at NASA Kennedy Space Center on January 3, 2019.
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SpaceX

Once the program is complete, the agency will have doled out more than $8 billion in awards and contracts over about a decade.


From dozens of hopefuls, two contenders made it through the competition: SpaceX and Boeing.

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An illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft (left) and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft (right).
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NASA/Kennedy Space Center (via Flickr); Boeing; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

Both of their spacecraft are designed to fly up to seven passengers to and from Earth’s orbit.


SpaceX, which Musk founded in 2002, designed the Crew Dragon, a 14,000-pound spaceship that’s made to be reusable.


Boeing, a century-old aerospace company, created the CST-100 Starliner, another reusable capsule. It’s made to land back on Earth using airbags, rather than splashing into the ocean.

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An illustration of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner docking to the International Space Station.
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Boeing

NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will likely be the first to fly a commercial spacecraft: the Crew Dragon. Musk most recently said that mission — called Demo-2 — could launch in April, May, or June.

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NASA astronauts Doug Hurley (left) and Bob Behnken (right) are scheduled to be the first people that SpaceX launches into orbit.
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SpaceX

Both men are spaceflight veterans and have been deeply involved in SpaceX’s efforts to make Crew Dragon a human-rated vehicle and launch it later this year.

Boeing also hopes to launch the CST-100 Starliner on its first-ever crewed flight this year, but it has not yet set a date. NASA may ask the company to re-do an uncrewed flight test before allowing astronauts to fly the Starliner, since Boeing’s first try was unsuccessful.


Musk recently shared an animation of what that first crewed SpaceX flight might look like.

In the video, two astronauts trot down a sleek launchpad walkway in Cape Canaveral, Florida, climb aboard a Crew Dragon, and shoot into orbit atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

The ship docks with the ISS then later detaches. After jettisoning a “trunk” made to help it reach the space station, the Crew Dragon capsule and its human passengers blaze home as the vehicle’s heat shield plows through Earth’s atmosphere at about 25 times the speed of sound.


In total, NASA has selected nine astronauts to fly the Boeing and SpaceX spaceships for the first time.

The group includes former space-shuttle flyers, ex-military test pilots, rookies, and – critically – a cadre of four astronauts who’ve been testing and providing feedback on the new commercial ships for years.


Before humans can fly in these spacecraft, though, NASA requires a series of test flights and demonstrations.

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A thruster designed to help Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner blast away from a launchpad in an emergency.
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Aerojet Rocketdyne

In one such test, the Crew Dragon flew to the space station in March 2019, making it the first commercial vehicle to ever do so.

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — the first of NASA’s Commercial Crew vehicles — prepares to dock with the International Space Station on March 3, 2019.
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NASA

The mission, called Demo-1 (for Demonstration 1), launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. It then linked up to the International Space Station for five days.

No astronauts were on board – just a crash-test dummy named Ripley, 400 pounds of cargo, and a fuzzy toy Earth.


After its five-day sojourn at the space station, the capsule splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship returns to Earth after its Demo-1 mission, March 8, 2019.
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NASA TV

Officials declared the test a complete success.


“This is an amazing achievement in American history,” Bridenstine said during a live broadcast after the landing.

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A recovery ship retrieves the Crew Dragon capsule in the Atlantic Ocean, about 200 miles off the east coast of Florida, March 8, 2019. Its burnt-marshmallow look comes from receiving hot plasma during atmospheric reentry.
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NASA/Cory Huston

He described it as “the dawn of a new era in American human spaceflight, and really in spaceflight for the entire world.”


But later trials hit snags. SpaceX did not pass an April 2019 test that simulated a parachute failure.

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SpaceX performs a parachute test for its Crew Dragon spaceship, which will ferry NASA astronauts to and from space.
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SpaceX

The test was meant to examine what would happen if one parachute didn’t deploy during a flight. SpaceX tried to simulate the situation, leaving only three parachutes to break the fall. Unfortunately, the other parachutes didn’t properly deploy either.

“It failed,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations at the time, said during a House subcommittee hearing. “The parachutes did not work as designed.”

Gerstenmaier told Spaceflight Now that similar problems arose during Boeing’s parachute tests.


That same month, a Crew Dragon capsule exploded during a test-firing on the ground. NASA and SpaceX both welcomed the surprise failure.

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A test of SpaceX’s Dragon v2 capsule thrusters.
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SpaceX/Flickr (public domain)

The mysterious explosion occurred as the capsule fired the large engines that would help it escape a failing rocket.

“Ensuring that our systems meet rigorous safety standards and detecting anomalies like this prior to flight are the main reasons why we test,” SpaceX said on the day of the failure.

Kathy Lueders, who manages the Commercial Crew program, called the explosion “a huge gift for us” in terms of making the ship safer to fly.

(NASA refused to provide photos, videos, and documents related to the failure that Business Insider requested through the Freedom of Information Act, citing SpaceX’s intellectual property rights.)


Boeing launched its Starliner capsule toward the space station for the first time in December 2019.

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The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, atop a ULA Atlas V rocket, lifts off for an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station, December 20, 2019.
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Reuters

Nobody was inside – just a mannequin named Rosie. There was also some food, Christmas presents, and other cargo for astronauts aboard the space station.


But the Starliner suffered a major glitch with a clock about 31 minutes after launch, causing it to veer off-course.

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An illustration of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner navigating through space.
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Boeing

To save the uncrewed ship from total failure, Boeing skipped its docking with the space station – the main objective of its mission – and used the remaining propellant to stabilize the capsule’s orbit and get it home.


On its early return to Earth, the capsule blew up impact-absorbing airbags and landed safely in the desert.

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The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is seen after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico, on December 22, 2019.
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Bill Ingalls/NASA

“When we look at how the launch vehicle, the Atlas V [rocket], and Starliner perform, it’s an incredibly good design. We didn’t see any major problems,” Steve Stich, the deputy manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, said during a press briefing.


NASA may ask Boeing to re-do that uncrewed mission to the space station before it launches its first astronauts.

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Retired NASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Chris Ferguson wears Boeing’s spacesuit inside a Starliner model.
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Boeing

Officials have declined to offer a timeline for the Starliner’s first crewed flight.


Before they ferry people, both spaceships also had to prove they can fly astronauts to safety in the unlikely event of a rocket-launch failure.

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NASA astronaut and Commercial Crew member Sunita Williams tests mock-ups of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship and spacesuit in April 2018.
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SpaceX

In November 2019, Boeing passed a ground test of the Starliner’s abort system.

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Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters ignite during the company’s Pad Abort Test on November 4, 2019.
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NASA JSC/Boeing

The capsule rocketed nearly a mile into the air, then parachuted back to the ground. The entire flight lasted 1.5 minutes.


On Sunday, SpaceX demonstrated its own escape system by turning off one of its Falcon 9 rocket mid-flight with a Crew Dragon perched on top.

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One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets intentionally explodes during an in-flight abort test of the company’s new Crew Dragon spaceship for NASA on January 19, 2020.
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Joe Rimkus Jr./Reuters

The rocket was traveling at around twice the speed of sound when SpaceX shut it down. At that moment, the Crew Dragon detached, fired its own thrusters, and sped away from the soon-to-explode rocket.

The gumdrop-shaped ship landed in the ocean under four giant parachutes about 9 minutes after launch.

Musk described the mission as “risky” prior to launch because the flight was high, fast, and “pushing the envelope in so many ways.”


“As far as we can tell thus far, it was a picture-perfect mission. It went as well as one could possibly expect,” Musk said during a NASA press briefing after the launch.

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One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets intentionally explodes during an in-flight abort test of the company’s new Crew Dragon spaceship for NASA on January 19, 2020.
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Joe Rimkus Jr./Reuters

Though both companies are almost ready to launch astronauts, the Commercial Crew program has run years past its deadline.

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Kathleen O’Brady, a NASA certification systems engineer, reviews documents for Boeing and SpaceX’s new spacecraft.
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NASA/Frankie Martin

Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to have their systems certified by 2017, according to a 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office.

“Most of us are just way past ready for this to happen. It has taken a lot longer than anybody thought,” Wayne Hale, a retired NASA space-shuttle program manager, recently told Business Insider. “This year we really need to do it. It really needs to be done.”


“2020 is the year,” Lueders told the Associated Press in December. “This is really the final trial of these vehicles.”


Once testing is done, a round-trip seat on the Crew Dragon will cost about $55 million and a seat on Starliner will cost about $90 million.

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Astronauts train inside a mockup of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spaceship.
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Boeing

That’s according to a November 2019 report from the NASA Office of Inspector General.


If you’re interested in hitching a ride, NASA also plans to open the space station to tourists for $35,000 per night.

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The International Space Station orbits Earth every 90 minutes.
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NASA

Last year NASA announced it would allow two private astronauts per year to stay up to 30 days each on the space station.