SpaceX’s Elon Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine staged a public show of support for one another at the rocket company’s headquarters Thursday, weeks after the two traded barbs over the closely held company’s delayed efforts to fly astronauts for the first time.
Bridenstine praised Musk and SpaceX for its approach to speedily testing, flying and fixing rockets, and emphasized how close the company and agency are to launching U.S. astronauts on American rockets for the first time since 2011. SpaceX and Boeing Co. have contracts to perform such missions under NASA’s commercial crew program, though both have encountered setbacks that have put the companies behind schedule.
“This is a big deal for our country,” Bridenstine said alongside Musk and the two astronauts assigned to fly on SpaceX’s first-ever crewed flight. “We have to get it right.”
The tone was a departure from the chiding tweet the NASA chief sent on Sept. 27, just before Musk presented the next-generation rocket that SpaceX plans to eventually use to take humans to Mars. Bridenstine wrote then that the agency expects the same level of “extreme enthusiasm” for that rocket, called Starship, to be applied to a program funded by American taxpayers. “It’s time to deliver,” he said.
Musk spoke amicably with Bridenstine in front of members of the media and SpaceX employees. The two said there are several tests left to do before the first crewed mission, including ones evaluating the capability of new-and-improved parachutes and the ability of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to escape harm in the event of an in-flight emergency. But if all goes according to plan, Bridenstine said he hopes the first test flight with astronauts aboard will take place in the first quarter.
“We generally say what the best guess is and then bring people along for the ride,” Musk, SpaceX’s chief executive officer, said of the company’s approach to setting timelines. “Sometimes we’ll be wrong, but I think it’s more interesting.”
Bridenstine said he’s put an emphasis as NASA Administrator on the need for “more realism” to be built into development timelines.
NASA’s commercial crew program dates to September 2014 when the agency awarded SpaceX and Boeing $6.8 billion in contracts to resume U.S. flights to the space station. Boeing has an abort test scheduled for next month in New Mexico, followed by its first test flight to the International Space Station slated for Dec. 17.
“We’re now at the very challenging part of getting these vehicles certified,” Steve Stich, a NASA deputy manager on the commercial crew program, said Thursday at a spaceflight symposium in New Mexico.
SpaceX flew Crew Dragon in March with a mannequin on board and docked with the space station. But an explosion caused by its launch-abort system during testing the following month required the company to make design changes and set back its crewed flight schedule.
Boeing is tentatively planning its flight with astronauts for the first quarter of 2020, depending on what’s learned from the un-crewed flight, John Mulholland, a Boeing vice president, said at the symposium.