What I am hearing regarding NASA’s commercial crew program: There is a “decent” chance a single, crewed mission will fly in 2018.
— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) August 10, 2016
I asked Eric what he meant by this Tweet. He said he was referring to a crewed test flight of either SpaceX’s Dragon or Boeing’s CST-100 sometime by the end of 2018. That would push back the first commercial mission into 2019.
The current schedules, which the space agency presented to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) late last month, are shown above. Below are the key milestones for each company with their current and original schedules.
Boeing CST-100 Starliner
- December 2017: Flight test without crew
- February 2018: Flight test with crew
- May 2018: Certification review for commercial flights
- January 2017: Orbital flight test (OFT) flight test readiness review (FTRR)
- March 2017: Crewed flight test readiness review
- August 2017: Certification review for commercial flights
SpaceX Crew Dragon
- May 2017: Flight test without crew
- August 2017: Flight test with crew
- October 2017: Certification review for commercial flights
- March 2016: Fight test without crew
- October 2016: Flight test with crew
- April 2017: Certification review for commercial flights
Note that Boeing did not give months for its two CST-100 Starliner flight tests; instead, it showed readiness reviews that would precede these missions. Based on the current schedule shown in the table above, we can infer that flights would have followed within a month or so of the reviews.
Boeing’s certification review, which would allow it to begin commercial flights, has slipped about nine months from August 2017 to May 2018. Boeing officials said they have been dealing acoustic load and weight issues with the capsule. They have said the weight is under control, and engineers are testing a solution for the acoustic load problem.
SpaceX has slipped 14 months on its first Dragon flight without a crew and 10 months on the crewed flight. Certification would occur in October 2017, only six months behind the original plan.
Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight, told the NAC last month that the current schedules are “optimistic but achievable.”
NAC members expressed their concern that NASA could face a gap in accessing the station if there are further delays in the program. The space agency has only contracted with Russia for seats on the Soyuz spacecraft through 2018.
During a Q&A earlier this week with two NASA astronauts assigned to the commercial crew program, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders gave a vague answer about the progress of the two companies.
What is the progress of the Commercial Crew Program?
I think people forget about the time frame and how short the time has been that our partners have been working on the final development of their spacecraft. We awarded the contracts in September 2014. Right now, the companies are in the midst of this grueling periods of getting their vehicles together and getting their structural test articles together. We’re getting ready for flight tests. Most importantly, we’re getting there as fast as we can safely fly.
Unlike during previous rounds of Commercial Crew Program funding, NASA is not issuing press releases each time a company has successfully completed a milestone. There were fewer schedule during these earlier phases.