SpaceX Commercial Crew Schedule Still in Flux

SpaceX Commercial Crew Schedule Still in Flux

SpaceX’s schedule for resuming its commercial crew test flights to the International Space Station (ISS) remains in flux as the investigation into the April anomaly that destroyed one of its Crew Dragon capsules continues.  The company is planning to have its next test vehicle ready by the end of the year, but NASA’s commercial crew program director said today a launch date cannot be set until the investigation is complete and other tests take place.

On April 20, the Crew Dragon capsule that SpaceX used for its uncrewed Demo-1 mission to the ISS was destroyed during a ground test of its SuperDraco engines.  No one was injured.

SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon space transportation system as a public-private partnership with NASA.  It owns the vehicles.  NASA is purchasing services from the company.  The two work closely together, but SpaceX is in charge of the investigation.  SpaceX and NASA have been criticized for providing only minimal information to the public about what happened.  SpaceX has said only that whatever caused the anomaly took place during activation of the SuperDraco system, but before the engines fired.

Kathy Lueders, Director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, briefed the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) committee today. She praised SpaceX’s interactions with NASA, stressing that NASA personnel were in the control room when the test took place and the company has been communicating with NASA on a daily basis since the anomaly occurred.

Slide presented by NASA’s Kathy Lueders to NASA Advisory Council HEO committee meeting May 28, 2019.

Under its contract with NASA, SpaceX must conduct an uncrewed flight test to ISS (Demo-1), a crewed flight test (Demo-2), and two tests of the abort system — a Pad Abort Test and an In-flight Abort Test.  The Pad Abort Test was successfully completed in 2015 and Demo-1 took place in March 2019.

The April 20 static fire test was in preparation for the In-flight Abort Test, which was scheduled for June to demonstrate that the SuperDraco engines can successfully separate the Crew Dragon capsule from the Falcon 9 rocket if an emergency occurs after liftoff.

That test still must take place once the investigation is complete and any necessary fixes are made.  SpaceX also continues to test its parachute system for Crew Dragon’s landing in the ocean.

Lueders stressed that all the remaining tests are critical, so it is not possible at this time to set dates for Demo-2 or operational flights thereafter.  Everyone understands that the goal is to “fly crew safely as soon as possible.”

That applies to Boeing’s commercial crew system, Starliner, too.  Boeing has not conducted any of its flight tests yet.  Its uncrewed test flight to ISS, Orbital Flight Test (OFT), recently slipped again to no earlier than August.  Lueders said the OFT vehicle will begin acceptance testing at the end of next week.  Boeing must conduct a Pad Abort Test before its Crew Flight Test (CFT).  The CFT is planned for “late 2019.”

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  It is anxious to get these two commercial crew systems operational so it can resume launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil, the unofficial motto of the program. Until then, NASA must continue to purchase crew transportation services from Russia.

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