It has been seven long years since the Space Shuttle retired from service, and American astronauts have been hitching rides on Russian Soyuz rockets ever since. NASA has to pay big bucks for every seat on a Soyuz mission, but the long-delayed Commercial Crew Program is supposed to change that by giving NASA access to private launch vehicles. SpaceX is now promising that its schedule is locked in and there won’t be any more delays.
SpaceX and Boeing have been working toward certification for their manned spacecraft for several years. Boeing recently suffered a setback with its CST-100 Starliner capsule after the capsule’s hydrazine engines developed a leak following a test firing. The company says it has developed a fix, but that’s going to require additional testing. Boeing has pushed its timeline back as a result.
Recent tests of SpaceX’s Dragon 2 manned spacecraft have gone better. CEO Elon Musk and COO Gwynne Shotwell have assured onlookers that SpaceX is still on schedule to test the Dragon 2 with an unmanned flight to the International Space Station around November of this year. They also say that a manned flight in April of 2019 is on schedule.
This rosy prediction of SpaceX’s future doesn’t square with a recent government report. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an analysis in July that claimed neither Boeing nor SpaceX were likely to conduct a manned launch in 2019. It may even take as long as August of 2020 before all the pieces are in place to begin launching manned missions with the Dragon 2 or CST-100.
Currently, NASA only has Soyuz seats booked through the end of 2019. The Soyuz is a non-reusable vehicle, so the agency can’t just extend the contract. Russia won’t be able to get more seats allocated as it builds capsules until 2021. If SpaceX can hold to this new promise, the Dragon will be ready to take over American ISS transport with plenty of time to space. If the GAO report is right, there could be a number of months when the US can’t send astronauts to the station.
Following the uncrewed flight test, SpaceX will again demonstrate that its in-flight abort system is functional. The next flight after that will be the manned test in April of next year with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley at the controls — at least we hope that’ when it’ll happen.