NASA Finally Schedules Test of SpaceX Spacecraft Designed for Astronauts

By George Dvorsky on at

The first flight test of an unpiloted SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has been scheduled for January, NASA announced this week. The test marks an important milestone for the United States, which hasn’t been able to independently deliver astronauts to space since 2011 when the Space Shuttle program was retired.

Mark your calendar, folks—the uncrewed test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, called Demo-1, has been scheduled for 7 January 2019 at 11:57 pm local time, which is 8 January 2019 at 4:59am UK time. A Falcon 9 rocket will launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the US state of Florida and carry the capsule to the International Space Station. The space agency will carefully monitor the performance of the rocket, Crew Dragon, ground system operations, and the docking procedure.

“Following the test flights, NASA will review the performance data and resolve issues as necessary to certify the systems for operational missions,” wrote the space agency in a release. However, “as with all human spaceflight development, learning from each test and adjusting as necessary to reduce risk to the crew may override planning dates,” NASA added.

Should all go well, and NASA declares the Crew Dragon capsule fit for human occupants, a second test, called Demo-2, will happen—fingers crossed—in June. The Demo-2 test will once again utilise a Falcon 9 rocket, but this time two NASA astronauts—Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley—will be delivered to the ISS, reports Spaceflight Now.

Prior to Demo-2, however, NASA intends to conduct an in-flight abort test, during which time the abort system of an unpiloted Crew Dragon will be engaged, jettisoning the capsule from the top of a Falcon 9 shortly after launch, according to Space News.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves; the abort test and Demo-2 will only happen if the Demo-1 test is deemed a success by NASA.

Without a doubt, this is a very important test as far as the US space programme is concerned. Since 2011, the United States has had to rely on other partners to get its astronauts into space, namely the Russians and their Soyuz programme. The precariousness of this arrangement was recently brought to the fore following the aborted Soyuz launch of 11 October 2018—an incident that has, for all intents and purposes, made space inaccessible to NASA astronauts pending a Russian review of the incident. And given that NASA’s contract with Russia’s Soyuz program expires this month, there’s fear that the US won’t have access to the ISS for about a year.

Yes, problems or further delays with the Crew Dragon would be bad, but not catastrophic. Boeing is also working on crew capsule, the CST-100 Starliner, which is scheduled for an unpiloted test in March 2019, according to NASA, and a piloted test in August 2019. For these tests, Boeing will be using the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

As an important aside, some of these test dates could be impacted by a newly announced NASA review of workplace safety culture at both SpaceX and Boeing.

Earlier this week, NASA said it’s going to conduct a “cultural assessment study” of the two companies, “including the adherence to a drug-free environment,” before crewed test flights will be allowed to happen. NASA said it “fully expect[s] our commercial partners to meet all workplace safety requirements in the execution of our missions.” Though NASA won’t openly admit it, the cultural assessment study is a likely reaction to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s now infamous appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast in September, when he (apparently) smoked weed and sipped whiskey during the show.

Way to go, Elon. [NASA, Spaceflight Now, Space News, Reuters via CBC]