The days of U.S. astronauts riding solely Russian vehicles to the International Space Station is drawing to an end. On Friday, NASA announced a second crew mission with the private space company after they completed several developmental milestones. NASA also reviewed the Crew Dragon spacecraft, Falcon 9 rocket and the ground systems supporting the inevitable launch.

SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell says the Crew Dragon is coming together quite nicely, and the qualification of their docking adapter is done. “We appreciate the trust NASA has placed in SpaceX with the order of another crew mission and look forward to flying astronauts from American soil next year.”

Did You Know: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is designed to carry up to four crew members and nearly 220 pounds of pressurized cargo. Once there, the crew won’t be ditching the spacecraft. It will stay attached for up to seven months in case of emergency. If something catastrophic happens to the ISS, NASA wants the ability to get their people off the space station and back on Earth.

ISS will soon add an extra crew member

Right now, Russian Soyuz capsules ferry three ISS crewmembers back and forth. With SpaceX’s Crew Dragon able to send four, NASA plans to boost the number of ISS crewmembers to seven.

Julie Robinson, NASA’s International Space Station chief scientist, explains why a seventh crewmember is a big deal.

“With the commercial crew vehicles from Boeing and SpaceX, we will soon add a seventh crew member to space station missions, which will significantly increase the amount of crew time to conduct research,” says Robinson. “Given the number of investigations waiting for the crew to be able to complete their research, having more crew members will enable NASA and our partners to significantly increase the important research being done every day for the benefit of all humanity.”

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More crew means more research. And for us? Even more epic views of Earth.

Jeff Williams captured this stunning view of the Northern Rockies recently.

When will SpaceX start sending crew to the ISS?

The process is a bit more complicated than just sending astronauts up. First, NASA needs to prep the ISS to receive the new spacecraft from SpaceX and Boeing. And SpaceX did their part last month in making sure these missions become a reality.

On July 17, a Falcon 9 rocket lifted another supply mission to the ISS. With a little something special inside.

international docking adapter

That’s the International Docking Adapter (IDA). All future spacecraft will be able to dock using this. NASA planned to install one of these last summer, but it was lost during the failed June 28, 2015 SpaceX launch. A second IDA is scheduled to reach the ISS in February 2018.

Once these are installed, it’s just a matter of SpaceX and Boeing building their spacecraft and passing NASA’s extensive certification process.

In Hawthorne, California, SpaceX engineers are busy putting together four Crew Dragon spacecraft. Two will be used for qualification testing. The other two are slated for flight tests next year.

As for when these missions will launch? NASA typically places these orders at least two years before their mission dates. This gives SpaceX and Boeing the time they need to build and test their spacecraft. That’s why SpaceX is building four Crew Dragon spacecraft. Before NASA puts their astronauts inside a private company spacecraft, they want to see an uncrewed flight test and a crewed flight test.

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The first NASA-contracted crew delivery mission has a preliminary launch date of late 2017. Expect that date to shift around quite a bit. Early-mid 2018 is a safer bet.

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