NASA may yet to find a way to extend its mission and presence on ISS. A recent modification of a contract brings the agency closer to use a test flight, which will be an operating mission aboard the ISS. On April 5, the American space agency announced it modified its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract. 

This is a contract together with Boeing with the purpose of studying possible changes to the second test flight of its CST-100 Starliner vehicle.  Presently, the vehicle is planned to transport two persons on a short flight mission to the space station.  The contract’s update allows NASA to add another crewmember to the flight. 

Additionally, the former short-duration flight mission was two weeks and is now six months. This is the usual length of stay of an astronaut on the International Space Station.  Besides the third member and extended mission, updated changes include the new member’s mission support and training. Moreover, it gives the possibility of flying cargo on the mission as well as a previous test flight, which did not have a crew.

The new crewmember and extended mission open an opportunity for more microgravity research and a number of other activities while staying at ISS. NASA also acknowledged that the U.S. could use this opportunity to maintain their presence aboard the International Space Station. This is in the event that there were more delays in the development of Crew Dragon of SpaceX as well as the Starliner. 

Since the crew’s mission will be extended, NASA will have an additional schedule margin if there is any need for it.  In the following year, NASA has narrow options on access to ISS. They will be able to use Soyuz seats obtained from Boeing for trips to the station in the 2019 spring. In fall 2019, when the astronauts return to Earth, NASA will lose contact with ISS.

If required, the commercial crew test flights can also serve as crew rotation missions. According to Gerstenmaier, this is something they have been discussing with Boeing and SpaceX as well. The changes made with the update to the CCtCap contract bring an extension to the test flights, which in turn can bridge any gaps on schedule.

This is until NASA certified at least one commercial crew spacecraft for regular flights to the ISS. Gerstenmaier hopes that this summer they will be able to reach a decision if this approach would truly work.