NASA Announces January 7 for SpaceX Uncrewed Commercial Crew Test Flight – UPDATED

NASA Announces January 7 for SpaceX Uncrewed Commercial Crew Test Flight – UPDATED

NASA announced today that the first test flight of SpaceX’s commercial crew space transportation system is set for January 7, 2019.  Called Demo-1, this test flight will not carry a crew.  A crewed test flight is expected in June 2019.  Both are steps towards certifying the system for operational use to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). [Updated November 26 with cautionary comment by NASA Administrator Bridenstine about the date.]

The announcement comes just one day after the Washington Post reported that NASA will conduct a safety review of both commercial crew contractors, SpaceX and Boeing.  The newspaper cites unnamed sources as attributing the decision to concern about recent behavior of SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk and its implications for the safety culture at the company.  No concern was cited about Boeing, but the action applies to both.  Each issued statements expressing confidence that their workplaces meet or exceed all requirements.

That review apparently will not affect the date for this Demo-1 test flight, however.  The safety concerns undoubtedly are directed toward launches that will carry people.   That is June 2019 for SpaceX and August 2019 for Boeing under the current schedule.

The January 7 date is not firm, however.  On November 24, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted that “To be clear, the date announcement for Demo-1 was to enable intl press access. There are reviews in Dec to decide configuration, waivers and date. Intl partners, the range, and ISS availability could also impact schedule.”

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing to build new crew space transportation systems as public-private partnerships in 2014.  SpaceX was awarded $2.6 billion for its Falcon 9/Crew Dragon system, while Boeing got $4.2 billion for its Atlas V/Starliner.

SpaceX already launches uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to the ISS on Falcon 9 rockets on cargo resupply missions.  The next is on December 4.  It will be the 16th under SpaceX’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA.  One of the missions suffered a launch failure, but the others have gone off without a hitch.

Different versions of Falcon 9 and Dragon will be used for the crewed missions.  SpaceX recently introduced the upgraded Falcon 9 Block 5.  Under its contract with NASA, seven successful launches of the Block 5 are required before using it for crews.  The Dragon spacecraft that will be used for astronauts, Crew Dragon, is outfitted with life support systems and other necessary modifications to accommodate passengers.

Falcon 9/Crew Dragon will lift off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. It is the same launch pad used for Apollo and space shuttle missions.  SpaceX leases it from NASA.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft launching atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: SpaceX

The commercial crew program emanated from President George W. Bush’s 2004 decision to terminate the space shuttle as soon as ISS construction was completed.  It was made in the wake of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy that killed its seven-person crew.

President Barack Obama adopted the Bush decision and in 2010 decided to acquire new crew space transportation capabilities through public-private partnerships (PPPs) instead of traditional government contracts.  In PPPs, industry and the government share development costs and the government guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services.  NASA is providing the lion’s share of the development costs for both companies’ systems, but commercial crew advocates argue that the total cost to the government is much less than if NASA developed a shuttle replacement on its own.

The United States has not been able to launch people into space since the final shuttle mission in 2011.  NASA must pay Russia to ferry U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese astronauts to and from ISS.   The commercial crew systems, once they are operational, will end that reliance.

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