Almost since the beginning of the commercial crew program in 2010, the old and new titans of the aerospace industry have been locked in a race to the launch pad. Boeing, with five decades of aerospace contracts, represented the old guard. SpaceX, founded in 2002, offered a new, leaner way of doing things.
Through the years, as other participants in the commercial crew program fell away, Boeing and SpaceX remained on course to deliver US astronauts into space. It has not been easy for either company or for their sponsor, NASA. The space agency has only ever led the development of four spacecraft that carried humans into orbit, and three of those programs came in the 1960s, with the fourth and final vehicle in the 1970s—the space shuttle.
As both companies sought to climb this steep learning curve, they have missed deadlines. An original deadline of 2015 melted away after some key members of Congress diverted funds for the commercial crew program to other NASA programs, notably the Space Launch System rocket. But in recent years, Congress has fully funded the efforts by Boeing and SpaceX, and they were told that would yield flights in 2017.
Last year came and went, however, and now one of the biggest questions facing the US aerospace community this year is whether the commercial crew program finally takes flight. On Thursday NASA provided a modicum of new information, releasing target dates for test flights, both crewed and uncrewed.
Under the new schedule, Boeing is slated to fly an uncrewed test flight of Starliner in August and a second flight with astronauts in November. SpaceX, too, is scheduled to fly a demonstration flight of its Dragon in August, followed by a crew mission in December. The dates for Boeing in the updated schedule are the same as they’ve been for about a year. SpaceX has slipped several months to the right.
On Thursday key figures from both Boeing and SpaceX spoke at a meeting in Houston, The Academy of Medicine, Engineering & Science of Texas. The deputy manager for Boeing’s commercial crew program, Chris Ferguson, said the company is still on track for flights this year. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said the same.
During her remarks, Shotwell also acknowledged that the new schedule released by NASA shows the companies “right on top of each other” for flights this year. While stating that neither company is racing to the launch pad, Shotwell did say, “We’re both pretty competitive in who is going to get astronauts to the space station first.”
After the presentations, Ars had an opportunity to interview Ferguson about the launch schedules. (A similar request for an interview with Shotwell was not granted, and she did not address the schedule slippage in her remarks. Later, a company spokesperson said the following, “SpaceX continues to target 2018 for the first demonstration missions with and without crew under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In 2017, significant progress was made towards the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon—one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built—and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”)
Asked about the new dates released by NASA, Ferguson noted that Boeing’s schedule had not moved. “Boeing sort of stayed put,” he said. “I won’t speculate why things moved around them. And I wouldn’t read too far into where they moved to. I believe, and take this as just a belief, this may be NASA’s interpretation of where they think commercial providers are going to launch.”
As far as Boeing’s schedule, Ferguson said the company has three key tests before the first crew flight—a pad-abort test in May or June, a hot-fire test of the service module to check out the performance of the vehicle’s three different classes of thrusters, and finally the uncrewed flight test to the space station later this summer. If all of that goes well, Boeing will be able to launch humans late this year.
“When we set out and build a schedule, we build a success-oriented schedule,” Ferguson said. “We address issues as they arise. I don’t think it’s an intent to deceive or anything, but the schedule is success based. If we have good success from here on out, you’re going to see a couple of launches this year.”
NASA’s public schedule aside, one key indicator of the agency’s confidence that human launches really are forthcoming is a public announcement of crews for the first Starliner and Dragon crews. NASA has designated four “commercial crew” astronauts—Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, and Sunita Williams—but has yet to assign them to specific flights. Ferguson said such an announcement could come during the “spring time.” (Another source told Ars that March is the earliest possible date for such an event.)
Leaders of NASA’s commercial crew and International Space Station programs face several key questions as they consider crews for the first human missions. SpaceX prefers two NASA astronauts to fly its first mission, but Boeing would like one NASA and one private astronaut (possibly Ferguson, a former space shuttle commander for NASA) to make the first Starliner flight. “That’s what we anticipate, but it has not been finalized at this point,” Ferguson said of the public-private astronaut combination on the first Starliner flight. “There are a few balls in the air right now, a few different things at work.”
Further complicating matters is that, due to limited availability of Soyuz flights in 2019, NASA may want the capacity to get more astronauts to the space station. Two sources, neither of which was affiliated with Boeing or SpaceX, told Ars that the space agency is considering the unorthodox step of lengthening the first crew test flights to the station such that astronauts launched might stay a few months on board the station, rather than making a flight up to the orbiting laboratory, and returning shortly thereafter.
These sources also indicated that although the race between Boeing and SpaceX remains too close to call, NASA’s change in schedules this week may be more than symbolic. Because of Boeing’s long association with NASA, the space agency is in some respects more comfortable with the way Boeing does things, and the company may therefore be at least a few months ahead of SpaceX in the 21st-century race to space. Beyond the optimistic public dates, these sources also believe that the competition is unlikely to be decided until early 2019, when the first commercial crew mission finally launches with people on board.
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