SpaceX may now be in the pole position to be the first company to launch astronauts to orbit under NASA’s Commercial Crew contract.
According to a report in GeekWire, Boeing has announced a slip, albeit a brief one, in its Starliner test schedule as the company works though several issues in getting its capsule ready for flight:
“A top Boeing executive said today that the company plans to start sending crews into orbit aboard its CST-100 Starliner space taxi in 2018, which represents a slight delay in NASA’s previous development schedule.
“We’re working toward our first unmanned flight in 2017, followed by a manned astronaut flight in 2018,” Leanne Caret, who is Boeing’s executive vice president as well as president and chief executive officer of Boeing’s defense, space and security division, said at a briefing for investors.”
Both SpaceX and Boeing are following development schedules which will see the companies launch their respective spacecraft to orbit first in unmanned mode, followed by a crewed mission which will likely dock with ISS before they begin regularly scheduled service outlined by the contracts.
For SpaceX, which saw its 8th Dragon spacecraft return from ISS yesterday, and its 9th overall, the progression towards a first crewed mission will see an in-flight abort test, as well as the possible early use of a Dragon 2.0 in cargo mode on one or more resupply flights scheduled under its NASA/CRS contract.
Boeing, which is receiving quite a bit more money than SpaceX under the Commercial Crew program, $4.2 versus $2.6 billion, will not be conducting an in-flight abort test of its CST-100 Starliner. Although early presentations by the company indicated one would take place, it was later removed, reportedly due to the cost of the Atlas V booster.
For its part, SpaceX is now suffering an embarrassment of riches where first stage boosters are concerned, leading to the distinct possibility that a previously flown first stage will now be used to loft the in-flight abort test. The schedule, and location for that test has been in flux however, as the company announced last year following a pad abort test in May, that the in-flight abort test would come after the first uncrewed flight of the Dragon 2.0, and would now take place in Florida rather than California. The reason cited for the switch was changes in the design of the spacecraft which meant the pad abort version, which would have been reused, no longer offered the highest fidelity.
That leaves SpaceX racing to complete both the uncrewed test flight, as well as the in-flight abort test during the first part of 2017 if it is to make an end-of-the-year initial crewed test flight. Given the understandable focus on safety however, it will not come as a surprise if both Boeing and SpaceX take until sometime in 2018 to fly with crew aboard.
Whichever company is the first to reach ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew program will not only make history, they will also bring a bit of it home in the form of an American flag left aboard the station by the crew of the Space Shuttle Atlantis during its final mission in July 2011.