Commercial Crew Test Flights Slip A Bit More

Commercial Crew Test Flights Slip A Bit More

NASA released a new schedule for the test flights of the SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew transportation systems.  Both companies’ dates slipped to the right a bit, but are still in 2019.  At last night’s State of the Union address, President Trump asserted that Americans would fly into space on American rockets “this year.”

SpaceX and Boeing are developing space transportation systems to take crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as public-private partnerships with NASA.  Under their contracts with NASA, each company must conduct an uncrewed test flight and a crewed test flight as steps towards certification for operational missions.  These “commercial crew” systems are SpaceX’s Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner/Atlas V.

President Barack Obama initiated the commercial crew program in 2010 as part of the FY2011 budget request.  The goal was operational flights in 2015.  Congress did not warm up to the idea for several years and provided less than requested funding in the early years.  Coupled with delays that are all too routine in space programs, the operational date slipped year by year to 2019.

The systems are owned by the companies.  NASA purchases services from them.  The underlying premise of the partnership is that NASA will be just one of many customers, but so far is the only one.  The agency must sign off on a variety of technical milestones and safety reviews before NASA astronauts climb aboard.  NASA announced its crews for the test flights and first “post certification missions” in August, although there has been one substitution since then.

NASA periodically updates when the test flights are expected.  A new schedule was posted today, referring to them as “test flight planning dates” rather than “targeted test flight dates,” the term used previously.  The new schedule is:

Schedule of commercial crew test flights released February 6, 2019 by NASA’s Commercial Crew Program office.  NET = No Earlier Than.

SpaceX’s Demo-1 is the uncrewed test flight.  A year ago, that flight was expected in August 2018, but it slipped and in November NASA said it would take place on January 7, 2019.  NASA Administrator Bridenstine cautioned, however, that it was a planning date only and delays were likely.

That has proved true and some remain skeptical that the new date of March 2 will hold.  Still, Irene Klotz of Aviation Week & Space Technology tweeted today that a Flight Readiness Review (FRR) — a key step that takes place close to launch — is scheduled for February 22, lending an air of credence.

Boeing’s uncrewed test flight, which a year ago was planned for August 2018, slipped to March 2019 and in this new schedule to no earlier than (NET) April.

The new dates for crewed test flights are July 2019 for SpaceX (instead of June) and NET August 2019 for Boeing (no change).

NASA is anxious to get the systems working.  It has been unable to launch anyone to ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It relies on Russia to take crews to and from ISS on its Soyuz rockets and spacecraft. NASA’s contract for Russian crew space transportation services expires soon. In any case, the agency wants to return to launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, the informal slogan of the commercial crew program.

During his State of the Union address last night, Trump said “This year, American astronauts will go back to space on American rockets,” signaling his interest in the commercial crew program as well.  The agency and its safety overseers strive to ensure that political pressure plays no role in influencing when launches take place, however.

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