Artists conception of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft in orbit. (c) NASA

Artists conception of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft in orbit. (c) NASA

Since NASA retired its space shuttle program this summer, the space agency has been left with no viable means of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. As such, NASA is currently dependent on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to fulfill this duty, whose services come at a hefty cost. Today, NASA announced that the American space transport company SpaceX will embark on a trip to the ISS in February, 2012.

The cost of a Soyuz trip for the US government comes at a very high cost, expected to climb at 63$ million per seat by 2015. As such, if this trend is set to continue, NASA could pay as much as $450 million in 2016 to Russia for the current number of fares to the ISS it currently has.

It’s evident that this move was expect from behalf of NASA from some time, since not only will SpaceX flights be slightly cheaper, but will also return to the American economy.

“SpaceX is excited to be the first commercial company in history to berth with the International Space Station,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX president. “This mission will mark a historic milestone in the future of spaceflight.”

Still, astronauts cannot be ferried to the ISS just yet. The first SpaceX flight to the ISS will be unmanned, as the February 7, 2012 launch is set to carry some important cargo to the station on its Dragon spacecraft. Manned flights will certainly follow.

“SpaceX has made incredible progress over the last several months preparing Dragon for its mission to the space station,” said William Gerstenmaier of NASA. “We look forward to a successful mission, which will open up a new era in commercial cargo delivery for this international orbiting laboratory.”