The United States’ long human-spaceflight drought may not last much longer.
American astronauts have had to rely solely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to get to and from orbit since July 2011, when NASA retired its space shuttle fleet. (Suborbital space is a different story: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo has made two crewed trips to that realm since December 2018.)
NASA wants private American vehicles to end this dependence and has been encouraging their development via its Commercial Crew Program. In September 2014, NASA awarded £2 billion ($2.6 billion) to SpaceX and £3.4 billion ($4.2 billion) to Boeing to finish work on their astronaut taxis — capsules called Crew Dragon and the CST-100 Starliner, respectively. At the time, NASA officials said they wanted at least one of these vehicles to be up and running by the end of 2017.
That didn’t happen, of course. But Crew Dragon is now nearly ready, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on 10 October 2019 during an event at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, United States.
“We are getting very close, and we’re very confident that, in the first part of next year, we will be ready to launch American astronauts on American rockets,” Bridenstine said.
The first quarter of 2020 — that is, January through March — is a realistic target for SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission, he added. That test flight that will carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Operational, contracted ISS missions would then follow.
But Bridenstine stressed that this timeline will hold only if things go according to plan with Crew Dragon’s development. And that’s far from guaranteed, as we saw this past spring.
On 20 April 2019, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on the Crew Dragon vehicle that flew Demo-1, a landmark uncrewed test flight to the ISS that launched on March 2 and returned to Earth six days later. Something went wrong during the test, just before the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines — which are designed to blast the capsule to safety in the event of a launch emergency — fired up, and the vehicle was destroyed.
SpaceX has revised Crew Dragon’s abort propulsion system as a result and will begin rigorous testing of the new design in the next few weeks, Musk said.
The company has also had issues with the capsule’s parachute system recently. SpaceX has decided to switch to from a “Mark 2” parachute design to the “Mark 3,” which has much stronger lines and a better load-distributing stitching pattern, Musk said. The Mark 3 still needs to be fully tested and certified, and that work will ramp up soon as well.
“We’re hopeful to have the first successful Mark 3 drop test within a week or two, and then there’ll be a steady cadence of tests thereafter,” Musk said. “We certainly want to get at least something on the order of 10 successful tests in a row before launching astronauts.”
SpaceX should be able to achieve that milestone by the end of the year if all goes well, he added. That could pave the way for the Crew Dragon and the Falcon 9 rocket that will fly Demo-2 to be delivered from California to Cape Canaveral before 2019 is out.
Those two issues — the abort propulsion system and the parachutes — are the only items “that SpaceX is aware of that put the schedule at risk,” Musk said.
Like Bridenstine, however, the billionaire entrepreneur issued a note of caution: “But there may be other things that we discover. This is also important to bear in mind.”
Indeed, both men stressed that, while they’re eager for SpaceX to start flying astronauts, nothing will be rushed.
“This is a big deal for our country, and we can’t get it wrong,” Bridenstine said. “We want to make sure we get it right.”
SpaceX has another big test mission before Demo-2: an in-flight abort (IFA) test, which will demonstrate the SuperDracos’ performance during a launch from Cape Canaveral. The IFA could happen as early as next month, Musk said recently.
Boeing, meanwhile, is gearing up for a big milestone of its own: Starliner’s first uncrewed test flight to the ISS, which the company just announced is targeted for mid-December.