Tensions over the Commercial Crew program are mounting between SpaceX and NASA. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine will be visiting SpaceX headquarters to check on the progress of the project that is years behind schedule. With increased efforts, Crew Dragon Demo-2 is expected to launch later this year.
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NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will tour SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on Thursday, Oct. 10, to see the progress the company is making to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station from American soil as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew ProgramNASA Press Release
The Commercial Crew Program
In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing received contracts from the US government to develop a spacecraft carrying American astronauts to the International Space Station, and back. The vessel was aimed to be reusable, and the deadline given to both companies was 2017.
Years of delay later, SpaceX successfully tested the “Crew Dragon” spacecraft (Demo-1) without any human crew and delivered cargo to the ISS. They also successfully retrieved the spacecraft from the ocean.
Crew Dragon Demo-2
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are preparing for the Demo-2 mission, where they will be the first humans to fly aboard the Crew Dragon spacecraft. This mission’s objective is not to reach the space station, however. They will be aborting the spacecraft in-flight in order to test the launch escape system. The launch escape system will be using SpaceX’s Super Draco engines to lift the spacecraft off, and away from the Falcon-9 rocket, and safely allow it to parachute to a landing.
Initially, the SpaceX thought of using the Super Draco engines to retro-propulsively land the spacecraft on the ground, similar to how SpaceX lands Falcon-9 boosters. Due to the human carrying component, and the unreliability of the Super Draco for landing, this plan was later canceled. SpaceX and NASA then continued with the traditional parachute splashdown approach.
Earlier this year, a leaked video of a Crew Dragon exploding on the pad went viral. This was due to an explosion with the Super Draco engines. This setback further delayed the already late Commercial Crew program.
Elon Musk vs Jim Bridenstine
A day before Elon Musk’s Starship presentation and unveiling event that happened last week, Jim Bridenstine tweeted his congratulations, but also his frustrations regarding SpaceX’s progress towards Commercial Crew and loss American taxpayer money.
Bridenstine’s later retweet indirectly emphasized that it was not a shot at SpaceX, but rather his desire to see contracted companies meet the government deadlines.
Elon Musk couldn’t stay silent, as when asked his thoughts on Jim’s tweet by CNN, he said: “Did he say Commercial Crew or SLS?” His reference towards NASA’s legendarily delayed project, the Space Launch System, wasting billions of dollars of taxpayer money was one of the finest space jabs in history.
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Commercial Crew first launch
A Falcon 9 rocket and the Crew Dragon that will be used for the in-flight abort test arrived at the SpaceX facility at Cape Canaveral. With this progress, we can expect SpaceX and NASA launch the Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission within the next 2-3 months. The first crewed mission to the International Space Station is expected early next year.
Meanwhile, where is Boeing?
In all this talk about SpaceX not delivering the Crew Dragon on time, or not spending enough enthusiasm on Crew Dragon compared to Starship, there is not much news at all about Boeing’s progress on their part of the contract.
Boeing was also contracted by NASA to build “Starliner,” their version of a spacecraft that could take American astronauts to the ISS and back. Jim Bridenstine says that an unmanned launch could be expected in a few months, around the same time that SpaceX will be preparing for their manned mission.
Boeing is way behind schedule, with Starliner still pending a launch test, pad abort, etc. Personally, I feel it unlikely that we see Starliner ever in the skies, with the Commercial Crew program picking up its pace with Crew Dragon. Even with heightened tensions, SpaceX and NASA don’t seem to be letting it affect the progress of the mission.