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Dragon arrival
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s crew-capable Dragon approaching a port on the International Space Station with a cargo Dragon in the foreground. (NASA Photo)

NASA has confirmed that the commercial space taxis being developed by SpaceX and the Boeing Co. will start carrying astronauts to the International Space Station no earlier than 2018, and there’s a chance the schedule could slip even further.

Any further schedule delays could create further complications, considering that NASA hasn’t purchased seats aboard Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for flights past 2018. In September, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said NASA wasn’t “presently looking at any additional seats beyond those that we have already purchased.”

Until SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner enter service, the Soyuz vehicles provide the only approved way to get astronauts to and from the space station. NASA’s most recent reservation with the Russians sets aside seats through the end of 2018, at a cost of $81.7 million per round trip.

In a blog posting, NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Martin said the current schedule calls for uncrewed test flights to the space station in November 2017 for SpaceX and June 2018 for Boeing.

“After the uncrewed flight tests, both companies will execute a flight test with crew prior to being certified by NASA for crew rotation mission,” Martin wrote.

She said SpaceX has targeted May 2018 for its crewed flight test, while Boeing is aiming to launch the first crew in August of that year.

In a statement, SpaceX said it was planning to fly the crewed demonstration flight in the second quarter of 2018 with two crew members.

NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing as commercial crew carriers in 2014 under the terms of $6.8 billion in contracts. Previously, SpaceX had held out hope that its first crewed flight might take place in 2017.

Boeing announced its revised development schedule in October.

In a Sept. 1 report, NASA’s inspector general said “multiple challenges … will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018.” That report blamed the delays on issues relating to vehicle mass and vibrations during launch in Boeing’s case, and on the design changes required to enable a splashdown at sea in SpaceX’s case.

On the same day that report was issued, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and its payload were destroyed in a launch-pad explosion, forcing a months-long suspension of SpaceX launches.

“We are carefully assessing our designs, systems and processes, taking into account the lessons learned and corrective actions identified,” SpaceX said in today’s statement. “Our schedule reflects the additional time needed for this assessment and implementation.”

The Falcon 9 is expected to return to service next month, but there are lingering questions about the planned fueling procedure for crewed Dragon flights.

Today SpaceX said that it has designed “a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launch a rocket.” The process calls for the crew to board the Dragon, followed by the departure of ground personnel and propellant loading. Throughout the process leading up to liftoff, the Dragon’s launch abort system would be enabled.

Last month, advisers to NASA said that putting the crew on board before loading the rocket’s oxidizer was “contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years.” In today’s statement, SpaceX said that the procedure had been worked out with NASA’s safety review board, but would be “carefully evaluated” and revised as needed in light of the investigation into the Sept. 1 explosion.

Some observers have said privately that even the updated schedule is optimistic – which is almost always the case for spaceship development. The bigger issue has to do with keeping NASA’s options open with the Russians if the delays mount and additional Soyuz seats are needed.

Boeing and SpaceX both say they can send astronauts into orbit at a lower per-seat cost than the Russians, but there’s more than money at stake: Policymakers say flights of the Dragon and the Starliner are essential to making American spaceflight great again.

There’s even a prize waiting for the winner: During the final space shuttle flight in 2011, astronauts left a small U.S. flag on the space station, to be claimed by the first team to return on a U.S.-made spaceship.

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