“Houston, do we have a problem?”
Questions are circling around NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which has asked SpaceX and Boeing to design a capsule to transport humans to and from the International Space Station. The capsules, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, are designed to end NASA’s dependance on Russian Soyuz rockets taking off from Kazakhstan to complete the journey.
Unfortunately, despite best efforts, it seems the teams may miss their deadlines. Without a backup plan, NASA could find itself without a way to continue its missions. Eric Berger, senior space editor at Ars Technica, claimed Tuesday that “full panic has ensued” as it has gradually emerged the capsules might not be ready for the first half of next year.
“For what it’s worth, the SpaceX schedule, which I’ve just reviewed in depth, shows Falcon & Dragon at the Cape & all testing done in ~10 weeks,” Elon Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, wrote on Twitter in response.
Musk also suggested that the in-flight abort test, which demonstrates the capsule can protect the crew in an emergency situation, could take place as early as late November or early December. The capsule and Falcon 9 rocket were recently spotted at the Cape Canaveral Air Force station in Florida where the final launch is expected to take place.
Following the test, SpaceX is expected to complete a “Demo-2” launch, the first manned Crew Dragon mission that will demonstrate the capsule’s feasibility for use to transport crew.
NASA and SpaceX: feeling the pressure
As SpaceX works to get its capsule ready for launches, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine floated the possibility to CNN last week of buying more Soyuz seats. Each seat costs around $80 million, and the last one is booked to launch in March 2020 and return in October.
“That’s the last one we have on contract,” Kirk Shireman, NASA space station program manager, told reporters Friday.
A backup plan is something the Government Accountability Office pressed for in June, when it issued a report that stated “both contractors have run into chronic delays.”
Shireman stressed in the Friday press conference that although time is of the essence, NASA will not sacrifice safety to reach its goals.
“We need them to fly safely,” he said. “We need them to fly, but more importantly, we need them to fly safely.”
Musk issued a reassurance on Twitter Tuesday that the company has reallocated resources to speed up the mission. SpaceX has also received support from its parachute supplier Airborne, which is offering the Mk3 chute that offers the “highest safety factor for astronauts.”
The SpaceX CEO has not enjoyed a great relationship with Bridenstine in recent months. As Musk unveiled the Starship rocket at the end of September, designed to send the first humans to Mars, Bridenstine wrote on Twitter:
I am looking forward to the SpaceX announcement tomorrow. In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.
Musk responded at the conference by noting that just five percent of the company has been working on the Starship, with the rest focused on Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon.
As NASA’s deadlines approach, it may need all the assurances it can get to maintain its faith in the project.