NASA Announces Test Flight for SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon took a step closer to reality on Wednesday, as NASA announced that the company will launch its first test flight for the capsule in just two months’ time. The unmanned test will pave the way for a manned test in the summer of 2019, which will see the first American astronauts enter space on board a commercial spacecraft.
The “Demo-1” uncrewed test flight will take place on Monday, January 7, 2019. The Crew Dragon spacecraft will be sent up on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at Launch Complex 39A. In a press statement, the agency said the launch would provide “data on the performance of the Falcon 9 rocket, Crew Dragon spacecraft, and ground systems, as well as on-orbit, docking and landing operations,” as well as “valuable data toward NASA certifying SpaceX’s crew transportation system for carrying astronauts to and from the space station.”
It’s a big moment for SpaceX, as it races against Boeing to kickstart a new era in visits to the International Space Station. After NASA retired the shuttle program in 2011, the agency started using Russia’s Soyuz rockets to send astronauts to and from the station. These commercial spaceflights will bring launches back to the United States, while also avoiding the costs associated with Soyuz of $81 million per seat.
Following the “Demo-1” flight, SpaceX is set to complete an in-flight abort test to demonstrate the craft’s emergency capabilities. This will be followed by a crewed “Demo-2” flight, scheduled for June 2019. The manned flight will send up former Air Force colonel Robert Behnken and former Marine Corps colonel Douglas Hurley, both of whom have served as astronauts since 2000. In a video shared by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk earlier this month, Behnken and Hurley were seen getting to grips with the Crew Dragon’s internal controls.
SpaceX faces competition from Boeing, which is working on the CST-100 Starliner. Based on current timetables, SpaceX will complete its first manned test flight first. Boeing’s uncrewed flight test is scheduled for March 2019, followed by a pad abort test, before undertaking a crewed flight test in August 2019. The manned flight will send up former Air Force test pilot Eric Boe, retired Navy captain Christopher Ferguson, and former Marine Corps. lieutenant colonel Nicole Aunapu Mann. While Boe and Ferguson served on a number of missions including STS-126, this will be Mann’s first trip to space.
It’s not just crewed NASA flights where the companies are competing. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in June that his company could beat SpaceX to a manned Mars mission, which SpaceX has tentatively scheduled for 2024. Musk responded with two words: “Do it.”
Related video: Take a Look Inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon