NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visited SpaceX’s headquarters in California today, for what was seen as an opportunity to smooth over differences and update expectations for SpaceX’s first-ever crewed spaceflight.
Over the past few years, the first flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts aboard has been repeatedly rescheduled, leading to moments of frustration for Bridenstine. But after meeting with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and others at the company’s facilities in Hawthorne, Calif., the NASA chief suggested the goal was in sight.
“If everything goes according to plan, it will be in the first quarter of next year,” Bridenstine told reporters.
He and Musk hastened to add that, when it comes to rocket science, everything doesn’t always go according to plan. Musk acknowledged that he can be overly optimistic about schedule estimates.
“My philosophy is to generally say what we think our best guess is, and then bring people along for the ride,” Musk said. “And then, if things don’t go quite as well as expected, hopefully cheer us on. It’s full disclosure. … Sometimes we’ll be wrong, but I think it’s more interesting to be along for the ride and not try to pretend everything is super-great. There’s always issues. Space is hard, obviously.”
A crewless Crew Dragon spacecraft made a successful practice trip to the space station in March — but that was followed by a setback in April, when the Crew Dragon that was slated for use in an in-flight launch abort test blew up on a test pad.
The accident investigation concluded that there was a leaky valve between the plumbing for the abort system’s SuperDraco thrusters and the lines for the orbital maneuvering system’s less powerful Draco thrusters. At the end of the abort test, pressurized propellant ripped through one of the system’s lines.
“It’s like a bullet,” Musk explained. “If it hit anything that was remotely combustible at the end of that line … it will even light titanium on fire, which is what it did.”
To resolve the issue, Musk said SpaceX replaced the system’s check valves with fittings known as burst disks, which should isolate the two sets of plumbing.
“Now there’s a few less valves, which is good, because it’s going to prevent these kinds of errors,” Bridenstine said, turning toward Musk. “I wouldn’t have said that earlier, but since you just said it, we’re OK saying it.”
Musk said the propulsion system would be tested over the next three weeks.
Another nagging issue has to do with the Crew Dragon’s parachutes: In drop tests, SpaceX’s parachutes had a hard time surviving a high-speed descent with enough redundancy to meet safety concerns. Musk said his team has now designed a “Mark 3” parachute with stronger Zylon fiber lines and risers that should stand up better to the aerodynamic stresses.
Musk said he thought the Mark 3 parachutes “are possibly 10 times safer’ than the previous Mark 2 model. The current development plan calls for SpaceX to see how the new parachutes hold up during a series of 10 drop tests.
“Depending on how the next 10 drop tests go, we will know how many more drop tests we need,” Bridenstine said.
Musk said SpaceX wants to see 10 successful tests in a row.
Today’s meeting came two weeks after Bridenstine set off a mini-tempest on the eve of SpaceX’s unveiling of a Starship prototype rocket in Texas. In a tweet, Bridenstine complained that efforts to develop the Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft were “years behind schedule.” The administrator took note of the hubbub over SpaceX’s Starship, and said “NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer.”
“It’s time to deliver,” Bridenstine wrote.
Musk stirred the pot during a CNN interview just after the Starship unveiling, when he alluded to the delays that have plagued NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.
Today’s visit smoothed over frictions that some feared could have turned into a feud between NASA and SpaceX.
“In the last weeks, we’ve had a number of conversations on the phone about what needs to happen in order to meet the highest priority, which is launching American astronauts again,” Bridenstine said. “Some of those issues, talking about the integration of the launch abort system with the propulsion system, are important. But the highest priority is the parachutes. … Elon has told me, and he’s showed me now, that that’s where their priority is.”
Bridenstine said “seeing all that has made a big difference.”
During today’s briefing, Bridenstine and Musk were accompanied by NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who are due to take the first Crew Dragon trip. “We spend almost all of every week here now,” Hurley told reporters. He and Behnken plan to be in Florida for the in-flight abort test, but most of the time leading up to their flight will be devoted to training and simulations in California.
Bridenstine said safety, not scheduling, would be the No. 1 priority for the first crewed orbital spaceflight to launch from American soil since the last space shuttle flight in 2011. And he said Musk agreed with that view.
“It’s really, again, about Bob and Doug,” Bridenstine said, with Musk looking on. “Elon and we were just in a meeting, and Elon looked at them and said, ‘We are not going to do anything that these two gentlemen are not comfortable with.’ And that puts all of us in a great position.”
Bridenstine even gave a spontaneous shout-out to SpaceX’s Starship. “NASA has an interest in seeing Starship be successful,” he said.
Bridenstine noted that NASA plans to work with the Starship team to test deep-space communications capabilities, vertical landing technology and in-space propellant transfer. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is even helping SpaceX check out potential Starship landing sites on Mars.
For his part, Musk noted that SpaceX is using only 5 percent of its resources on the Starship project, and said Crew Dragon is “absolutely the overwhelming priority.”
“Human spaceflight is the reason that SpaceX was created. We’re honored to partner with NASA and make this happen,” he said. “This is a dream come true, really.”