Falcon 9 with Crew Dragon vertical at Launch Complex 39A
The year 2019 is already off to a fast start with multiple deep space encounters performed by several robotic spacecraft. Closer to home, however, another vehicle is being prepped for its first orbital flight: SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. However, schedule unknowns still remain.
On the morning of Jan. 3, the doors to SpaceX’s Horizontal Integration Hangar at Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Company employees then rolled a fully-integrated Falcon 9-Crew Dragon up the pad ramp atop the Transporter/Erector. By the end of the day, the rocket was raised to a vertical position.
Just like NASA’s space shuttles and massive Saturn V rockets before, the first trip is primarily designated for fit checks and other integration tests.
This is the hardware that will be used for SpaceX’s unpiloted demonstration flight, called Demo-1, for NASA’s commercial crew program, which is designed bring orbital human spaceflight access back to the U.S. for the first time since July 2011 when the space shuttle orbiters were retired.
The commercial crew program is a multi-billion dollar effort by NASA and U.S. taxpayers to help two companies develop human-rated orbital spacecraft. A multi-year competition started in 2010 with five companies ultimately narrowed down to two — SpaceX and Boeing — on Sept. 16, 2014. SpaceX was selected to receive up to $2.6 billion to develop its Crew Dragon, while Boeing was set to receive up to $4.2 billion for its CST-100 Starliner. Both are expected to have a crew capacity of up to seven, but are likely to fly with only four people for operational ISS missions.
Initially, the program was expected to see the first flights in 2015, but a combination of insufficient funding from the U.S. Congress as well as technical issues typical of an engineering project of this scale forced several schedule realignments.
As of Jan. 5, Boeing’s Starliner flights are still slated to occur in March (unpiloted) and August (piloted) atop a human-rated Atlas 5 N22 rocket. The company’s piloted mission is expected to include NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann as well as Boeing astronaut Christopher Ferguson.
For SpaceX, its Demo-1 mission is expected as early as Jan. 17, 2019. However, it could be delayed to later in January or further pending a resolution to the ongoing partial U.S. government shutdown, which started Dec. 22, 2018, when a continuing resolution expired, resulting in a funding lapse for many discretionary spending items.
Of the agencies, including NASA, this lapse of funding is effecting, only employees deemed “essential” are working. Unfortunately, this does not appear to include those reviewing safety items for commercial crew flights, as was suggested in a tweet by Wayne Hale, a former Space Shuttle Program manager and flight director who currently consults for Special Aerospace Services.
If the current funding lapse, which stems from a disagreement between the U.S. Congress and President Donald Trump over funding regarding a border wall across the U.S.-Mexico border, lasts much longer, it is plausible commercial crew flights could be put on hold.
While it is unlikely to continue past several weeks, thus far each side has dug in on their positions. The Democratically-controlled House of Representatives doesn’t want any funding for a wall. The Republican-controlled Senate wants to pass a budget the Republican president will sign, which Trump said must include more than $5 billion for a border wall.
On how long the funding gap could continue, the president said he is prepared for it to go on for months or even a year. Such a funding lapse would be unprecedented as the longest shutdown lasted 21 days between Dec. 15, 1995, and Jan. 6, 1996.
Regardless of when the shutdown ends and the commercial crew flights take place, once Demo-1 launches, SpaceX plans to launch the piloted Demo-2 mission in June under the current plan. The flight is set to include NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. If successful, it would be the first orbital human spaceflight from U.S. soil since the STS-135 mission in July 2011.
Before Demo-2, however, SpaceX plans an in-flight abort test with the same capsule being used for the Demo-1 mission. That is currently expected for May.
ISS operations continue
In the meantime, International Space Station operations at Johnson Space Center are continuing relatively unaffected as many are deemed “essential” employees to help run and manage the low-Earth orbit outpost and its Expedition 58 crew, which includes NASA astronaut Anne McClain, Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, who is serving as commander of the ISS.
The next station crew is planning a launch on Feb. 28. The Soyuz MS-12 mission is slated to include NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin, both of which survived an in-flight Soyuz abort during their previous attempt to fly into space in October 2018. They are to be joined by NASA astronaut Christina Kock.
When the Soyuz MS-12 trio arrives to the ISS, they along with the already-aboard Kononenko, Saint-Jacques and McClain will form the six-person Expedition 59 increment.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.