From the early years of this decade, NASA astronauts have had to rely on Roscosmos’s Soyuz spacecraft to travel to and fro Earth’s orbit since 2011, ever since the US space agency retired its Space Shuttle program. However, now it seems that the wait for the US’ next human-spaceflight is likely to come to end.
NASA wants US-based private spacecraft companies to end the agency’s dependence and it has been supporting their development through its Commercial Crew Program. Back in 2014, the US space agency had awarded $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing towards finishing their astronaut carrying space capsules. The capsules which are called Crew Dragon by SpaceX and the CST-100 Starliner by Boeing, were expected to be ready by the end of 2017, according to a report by Space.com.
The deadline could not be met, however, Crew Dragon is now nearly ready, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently said at an event held at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
“We are getting very close, and we’re very confident that, in the first part of next year, we will be ready to launch American astronauts on American rockets,” the report said quoting Bridenstine as saying. He added that the first quarter (January-March) of next year (2020) could be a realistic target for the Demo-2 mission by Elon Musk’s firm.
The test flight is going to carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to and from the International Space Station (ISS) followed by operational, contracted missions to ISS, the Space.com report said. However, Bridenstine stressed the particular deadline will hold only when things go as per plan with the development of Crew Dragon. Which, however, does not seem to be guaranteed, given its track record in the past spring season.
Earlier this year, SpaceX had conducted a series of tests on the Crew Dragon spacecraft which flew Demo-1 test flight. Something had gone wrong during the test, before the Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines got fired and the vehicle was destroyed.
As a result of this, SpaceX has revised the abort propulsion system of Crew Dragon and the company would start rigorous testing of the new design in the next few weeks, the report said quoting Musk.
Apart from this, there have also recently been issues with the capsule’s parachute system. The company has decided to make a switch to the “Mark 3” parachute design from “Mark 2”. The Mark 3 design has much stronger lines and a better load-distributing stitching pattern, according to Musk. However, it still needs to be fully tested and certified.
“We’re hopeful to have the first successful Mark 3 drop test within a week or two, and then there’ll be a steady cadence of tests thereafter,” the report said quoting Musk as saying. The company should achieve that milestone by the end of the year if all goes well, Musk added.
These two issues – the abort propulsion system and the parachutes, are the only things that put the deadline at risk however Musk stressed that “there may be other things that we discover,” the billionaire said.
Apart from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing is preparing its Starliner for its first uncrewed test flight to ISS, which is targeted sometime during mid-December.