NASA Concedes No Commercial Crew Flight Tests This Year

NASA Concedes No Commercial Crew Flight Tests This Year

Today NASA once again updated its projections for the SpaceX and Boeing commercial crew flight tests.  None will take place this year.  The first, an uncrewed test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, slips from November 2018 to January 2019.  Boeing’s uncrewed test is delayed from “late 2018/early 2019” to March 2019.  The dates have slipped many times in the past and today’s announcement carried the caveat that the agency anticipates the dates “may change as we get closer to launch.”

Artist’s illustration of Boeing CST-100 Starliner. Credit: Boeing.

SpaceX and Boeing are building new crew space transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as public-private partnerships with NASA.  SpaceX is building Crew Dragon, a new version of the Dragon spacecraft used to take cargo to and from ISS.  It will be launched on SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets from Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC’s) Launch Complex 39A, which it leases from NASA.  Boeing is building the CST-100 Starliner that will launch aboard United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), adjacent to KSC.  ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin. KSC and CCAFS are both part of the Air Force’s Eastern Range.

Artist’s illustration of SpaceX Crew Dragon. Credit: NASA

The spacecraft and launch vehicles belong to the companies, not NASA.  NASA is partially funding development and purchasing transportation services.  The agency often points out that the schedules are based on what the companies tell them, although its Commercial Crew Program office works closely with both of them.

Under their contracts with NASA, both companies must launch uncrewed flight tests and then crewed flight tests before the vehicles are certified for operational flights.  The operational flights are referred to as “post-certification missions” or PCMs.

The last official schedule update was at the beginning of August, days before NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced the flight crew assignments for the crewed flight tests and the first PCM for each system.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk hinted three weeks ago that the SpaceX schedule was slipping.

Now it is official — all the flight tests have slipped into 2019.  The new schedule is:

  • SpaceX Demo-1 uncrewed flight test: January 2019 (delayed from November 2018)
  • Boeing uncrewed Orbital Flight Test: March 2019 (delayed from late 2018/early 2019)
  • SpaceX Demo-2 crewed flight test: June 2019 (delayed from April 2019)
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test: August 2019 (nominally still in mid-2019 as earlier stated)

The first PCM flights that will deliver ISS crews for multi-month “expedition” missions are tentatively scheduled for August 2019 and December 2019 “with the specific spacecraft yet to be determined.”

Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, said SpaceX and NASA are working to have the Demo-1 mission ready by December 2018, but the ISS schedule cannot accommodate the test until January.

The ISS is a busy place, with dockings and undockings of robotic cargo spacecraft from the United States, Russia and Japan; Russian Soyuz crew ferry missions (Russia has been the only ISS partner capable of sending crews to and from ISS since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011); and extravehicular activities (spacewalks) by ISS crew members.  Schedules also must be coordinated with other launches at the Eastern Range.

McAlister promised that NASA will improve its efforts at publicly updating the Boeing and SpaceX schedules now that the dates are getting closer.  “This new process for reporting our schedule is better; nevertheless, launch dates will still have some uncertainty, and we anticipate they may change as we get closer to launch.”

Under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the ISS partnership, NASA is responsible for providing transportation not only for its own crew members, but those from the Japanese, Canadian and European space agencies.  It pays Russia approximately $82 million per seat.  The contract expires next year for taking crews to the ISS and in early 2020 for returning them to Earth.  NASA is anxious to have the Boeing and SpaceX systems operational by then.  However, NASA officials have also said that at least one Russian and one American must always be aboard the ISS for operational reasons. For the indefinite future, therefore, Americans will continue to fly on Soyuz and Russians will fly on the U.S. commercial crew vehicles.  Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s human spaceflight program, told a House committee earlier this year that those flights would be on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.

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