NASA today laid out a newly stretched-out schedule for flying astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil, with SpaceX’s first such flight set for no earlier than next April.
The space agency also confirmed Boeing’s plan to put off its first crewed space taxi mission until mid-2019, and geared up to announce who’d be on the first space taxi flights for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon as well as Boeing’s Starliner.
Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, who commanded NASA’s last space shuttle mission in 2011, appears to be a sure thing for the first Starliner crew, based on advance reports. Other crew members for the first flights are likely to include four astronauts selected back in 2015: Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunita Williams.
NASA is due to live-stream the announcement from Johnson Space Center in Texas at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT) Friday, with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine presiding.
SpaceX and Boeing have been working on their space taxi programs for nearly four years, with the aim of transporting astronauts to and from the space station for NASA. Since the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011, the only spaceship cleared for carrying people to the station has been Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, and the ticket price for NASA is in the range of $80 million a seat.
Commercial space taxis offer an ostensibly cheaper, made-in-America option for NASA. But the schedule has repeatedly moved to the right for SpaceX as well as Boeing, due to setbacks ranging from SpaceX’s launch pad blow-up in 2016 to Boeing’s engine valve problems this June.
A few months ago, both companies had hoped to start flying people by the end of this year. In recent months, it’s become increasingly clear that both schedules would have to be reset.
NASA said SpaceX was now aiming to conduct an uncrewed demonstration flight of its upgraded Dragon capsule in November, known as SpaceX Demo-1. SpaceX is targeting April 2019 for its crewed demonstration flight, Demo-2.
No reason was cited for the schedule revision. But for what it’s worth, SpaceX still has to receive NASA’s human-rated safety certification for the Block 5 version of its Falcon 9 rocket, including propellant tanks that were redesigned in the wake of the 2016 explosion.
NASA’s schedule for Starliner flights confirmed what a Boeing executive said a day earlier: The first uncrewed mission to the station (Boeing Orbital Flight Test) would take place in late 2018 or early 2019, and the first crewed mission (Boeing Crew Flight Test) would follow five to six months later.
There’s no guarantee that either SpaceX or Boeing will stick to the schedule announced today. If history is any guide, the crews taking the spotlight on Friday will have even more time to train.