Launch dates of SpaceX and Boeing Commercial Crew Program spacecraft slip
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Hopes NASA’s private partners on the agency’s Commercial Crew Program would launch crewed spacecraft by the end of this year (2018) have been dashed. Reports have come in that, at the earliest, these so-called “space taxis” won’t be flying until 2019, with it more likely they’ll fly sometime in the 2020 time frame.
It appears that safety concerns about the launch vehicle for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft were part of the reason for the latest round of delays, at least in terms of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has exploded twice to date: once while in flight as it attempted to carry out the CRS-7 mission to the station and once while sitting on the pad at Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 40 waiting to be tested in advance of the launch of the Amos-6 satellite. It also encountered an engine out anomaly during the CRS-1 mission, which placed a secondary payload in an improper orbit (as was noted by Bad Astronomy’s Phil Plait in his Oct. 8, 2012 article on Discover Magazine).
These issues have not dampened the company’s resolve to send crews to the sole destination currently in low-Earth orbit (LEO): the International Space Station. Under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX was awarded some $2.6 billion (according to SpaceNews‘ Jeff Foust).
As noted on Ars Technica, both Boeing and SpaceX have expressed confidence that uncrewed test flights would begin before the close of this year (2018), according to the Ars Technica report, a U.S. House Subcommittee on Space hearing cast doubt on these assertions.
Moreover, a report by the United States Government Accountability Office noted that operational (crewed) flights by Crew Dragon to the International Space Station were unlikely before December of 2019, with Starliner unlikely before February of 2020.
Furthering these concerns, SpaceX’s last mission, Zuma, a highly-classified payload, was apparently lost. As was noted on SpacePolicyOnline, the matter came up during the House subcommittee hearing. The Jan. 7 launch/incident has led to finger pointing with SpaceX representatives stating its Falcon 9 performed nominally; the spacecraft’s manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, declining comment due to the classified nature of the mission; and White House spokesperson Dana White directing questions about the status of the mission to SpaceX. The confused status of the $1 billion Zuma mission, coupled with the latest round of CCP delays have led members of Congress to express concern.
For his part, the U.S. Air Force’s Lieutenant General John Thompson has expressed support for SpaceX, noting in a Bloomberg News that: “Based on the data available, our team did not identify any information that would change SpaceX’s Falcon 9 certification status …” Thompson serves as commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center.
Video courtesy of VideosfromSpace
As noted in an op-ed appearing on Forbes, it’s unclear who was responsible for Zuma, but according to Loren Thompson, the editorial’s author: “… launch providers usually have final responsibility for tip-to-tail readiness before a rocket lifts off, and competitor ULA has successfully employed a variety of payload adapters to attach satellites to its rockets.”
SpaceX appears to not be following this philosophy with both the company’s chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, and Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX (according to Space News’ Jeff Foust) publicly stating that the Falcon 9 performed normally during the Zuma mission.
For some time SpaceX appeared to have been in the lead in terms of getting its Crew Dragon spacecraft ready to fly first under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. A report appearing in the Orlando Sentinel stated that Boeing now appears to have taken point, with Starliner being readied for its first flights atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida.
Boeing’s “Orbital Flight Test” is slated to take place in August, along with SpaceX’s “Demonstration Mission 1.” Boeing’s manifest has remained fixed, but, according to the Orlando Sentinel, SpaceX’s schedule has slipped by four months. SpaceX’s first crewed flight, according to a report appearing on Yahoo News is slated for December 2018.
Shotwell’s February 2017 statements about her company’s efforts under Commercial Crew, while brash and defiant, now also appear to be inaccurate.
“Yeah, I’m confident we’ll fly crew in 2018,” Shotwell said at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. “The response to the report this morning was ‘the hell we won’t fly before 2019.'”
Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider
As noted, the heart of some of these delays appear to be rooted in crew safety. The agency would likely still be flying the Space Shuttles were it not for the 2003 loss of Space Shuttle Columbia on mission STS-107. As the agency prepares to mark the 15th anniversary since the loss of the orbiter’s seven member crew.
Meanwhile, NASA has been paying Russia $82 million per Soyuz seat to fly to the orbiting lab ever since the agency’s fleet of orbiters, which built the station, were put on display in museums and tourist destinations after the final flight of the Shuttle program in 2011.
NASA’s latest post on the launch schedule states, “The next generation of America’s spacecraft and rockets that will launch astronauts to the International Space Station are nearing the final stages of development and evaluation.” SpaceX and Boeing provide NASA with updates quarterly.
As noted, Zuma is just the latest in a series of accidents that has cast doubt in the minds of some about the reliability of SpaceX’s launch vehicles. In 2015, the CRS-7 Falcon 9 carrying more than 4,000 pounds (1,814 kilograms) of supplies, experiments and cargo bound for the International Space Station exploded 2 minutes, 19 seconds after launch. In 2016, another SpaceX rocket exploded during routine fueling procedures, destroying the $185 million Amos-6 Israeli commercial satellite. In 2017, the Block 5 version of the Merlin rocket engine exploded at a testing facility in Texas, as was noted by Space.com’s Mike Wall in his Nov. 2017 article.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has admitted that the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket, which will have 27 Merlin engines, as opposed to the Falcon 9’s nine, might not work, going so far as to make comments about another possible explosion. While that attitude might play well with fans of the company, it likely is not playing well with certain members of Congress or the NewSpace firm’s clients.
By contrast, United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint Boeing/Lockheed Martin space launch company, has flown 124 missions in 12 years and has not lost a single payload.
Jeff Foust with Space News noted in his report how the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) recommended that the U.S. space agency not certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launch system until the failure of the Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels (COPVs), which have been listed as the source of the 2016 Amos-6 accident, was more clearly understood.
The Planetary Society’s Jason Davis was less than sympathetic regarding the numerous delays and issues that NASA’s commercial partners have encountered, noting that the delays have evolved into a full-scale “problem” for NASA as the space agency only has seats purchased on Soyuz through the Fall of 2019. Crew-rating a spacecraft is a complex affair and, according to Davis, this “… may not occur until December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing.”
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.