New year, new era? Commercial Crew Program poised for first flights
With 2018 in the history books and 2019 beginning, the new year could see NASA edge closer to regaining what it lost nearly eight years ago — the ability to launch its own astronauts (with the help of private companies) from U.S. soil.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was envisioned as a means to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil. The companies that have been contracted to do so are Boeing and SpaceX. The former is developing the CST-100 Starliner capsule under this agreement, while SpaceX is producing its Crew Dragon spacecraft.
On Dec. 11, 2018, the final piece of hardware for the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket tapped for Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) arrived at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The critical components for this flight are expected to be moved to the Vertical Integration Facility where they are set to be assembled and moved to the launch platform for a planned March flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.
Boeing has also been busy a few miles down the road at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility where production is wrapping for three Starliner capsules. Two of these spacecraft are designed to be flown up to 10 times. The other will be used for a pad abort test, currently scheduled sometime between OFT, and the crewed flight test planned for August 2019.
The Starliner capsule that will be used for the first crewed flight test is currently undergoing pressurized testing at Boeing’s Space System and Satellite facility in El Segundo, California.
Starliner launches are slated to occur atop an Atlas V in a “N22” configuration. The “N22” means the rocket will feature no payload fairing, two solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage, which will finish Starliner’s trek into orbit.
The three astronauts tapped to fly on the August 2019 flight are Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann. Both Ferguson and Boe flew on NASA Space Shuttles with Ferguson commanding the final Space Shuttle mission, STS-135.
Meanwhile, at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is being prepped for its first demonstration flight (DM-1), which is currently scheduled to take place as early as the end of January 2019.
Crew Dragon’s role will be almost identical to that of Starliner’s — delivering astronauts to the International Space Station. Crew Dragon will utilize Falcon 9 Block 5 for its ride into orbit.
On Dec. 18, the company’s Instagram page showed a picture of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket in the hangar at LC-39A, awaiting final assembly and testing for DM-1.
SpaceX is planning an in-flight abort test sometime after the capsule’s first uncrewed test flight. Pending the successful outcome of DM-1, NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley are expected to fly aboard Crew Dragon for the first time in June 2019. Depending on scheduling, this could mark the first time Americans launched into space from the Kennedy Space Center since July 2011.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated NASA astronaut Victor Glover and Michael Hopkins were to fly aboard the first piloted Crew Dragon flight in June 2019. Instead, NASA’s Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley are expected to fly that mission. The story was updated on Jan. 1, 2019.
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.