NASA says the flight test schedule for space taxis designed by SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station has been stretched out further, as expected.
And it wouldn’t be surprising if additional postponements occur in the coming weeks and months.
The schedule announced today calls for SpaceX to launch its Crew Dragon capsule from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on an uncrewed demonstration flight to the station on March 2.
Boeing, meanwhile, aims to send an uncrewed Starliner space capsule from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to the station no earlier than April.
Each of those time frames is roughly a month later than the schedule laid out last November, and each is subject to further change.
“There still are many critical steps to complete before launch, and while we eagerly are anticipating these launches, we will step through our test flight preparations and readiness reviews,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said in today’s update. “We are excited about seeing the hardware we have followed through development, integration and ground testing move into flight.”
The revised schedule calls for Boeing to follow up with a launch-pad abort test of the Starliner no earlier than May, and the first crewed flight to the space station no earlier than August.
SpaceX is planning an uncrewed, in-flight abort test of the Crew Dragon in June, followed by the first crewed flight in July.
The crews for those milestone flights are currently in training. The Crew Dragon team consists of NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Doug Hurley, while the Starliner team has astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke plus Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson (a former space shuttle commander).
After each test flight, NASA will review the spacecraft performance data and resolve any issues that crop up, eventually leading to the certification of the space taxis for operational missions under the terms of contracts that have already been awarded to Boeing and SpaceX.
Since the shuttle fleet’s retirement in 2011, NASA has been paying Russia’s space agency to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the space station on Soyuz spacecraft, at a cost ranging in excess of $80 million a seat. SpaceX and Boeing say they’ll do the job less expensively.
NASA’s most recent contract for Soyuz rides will run out next year. Last July, a report from the Government Accountability Office raised concerns about a gap in NASA access to the space station if the commercial space taxis aren’t certified by 2020.