After months of testing, a SpaceX Dragon capsule that’s designed to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station has arrived in Florida, marking a significant step toward this summer’s scheduled test launch.
Even though the vehicle is called a “Crew Dragon,” this Dragon won’t carry crew on its first flight. Instead, it’s due to make an uncrewed practice run to the space station during what’s known as Demonstration Mission 1, or DM-1.
Before this week’s shipment to Florida, the Dragon underwent thermal vacuum tests as well as acoustic tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio. Today SpaceX showed off a picture of the Crew Dragon, which is a redesigned, beefed-up version of its robotic cargo-carrying Dragon, via Twitter and Instagram.
NASA’s current schedule calls for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch the DM-1 mission next month from Kennedy Space Center. However, that schedule is dependent not only on the pace of preparations, but also on the timetable for station arrivals and departures.
After several weeks, the Crew Dragon would unhook from the station and descend back down to Earth, still uncrewed, for a Pacific splashdown and recovery.
SpaceX will follow up on DM-1 with an in-flight abort test, and eventually with a crewed demonstration flight to the space station, known as DM-2.
Meanwhile, Boeing is moving ahead with work on its own space taxi, the CST-100 Starliner. The first three Starliner spacecraft are undergoing a variety of tests in preparation for this year’s first uncrewed flight to the space station. A crewed flight will follow, and NASA has the option of extending that flight to fit the station’s needs.
It’s not yet clear whether the Dragon or the Starliner will fly astronauts to the station first. Those spacefliers will be in a position to claim the U.S. flag that was left behind in 2011 by the shuttle Atlantis’ crew for the next crew to be launched from U.S. soil.
After the crewed demonstration flights, NASA will have to certify the Dragon and the Starliner for regular trips to and from the space station.
This week, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying that certification may not come until the end of 2019 or perhaps even 2020 — which is significantly later than NASA had anticipated. The GAO recommended that NASA come up with a contingency plan for ensuring there’d be a U.S. presence on the space station even if the space taxis aren’t certified on time.
Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only means approved for sending spacefliers to the space station. NASA’s access to Soyuz seats is currently due to run out in early 2020.