Elon Musk Ponders Renaming Mars Colonial Transporter as Crew Dragon Slips

Elon Musk has began to tease a talk he is set to give on Sept. 27 in which he is to reveal his plans for sending people to Mars. Musk will deliver his talk, titled “Making Humans a Multi-planetary Species,” during the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. According to the program

Elon Musk will discuss the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars. The technical presentation will focus on potential architectures for colonizing the Red Planet that industry, government and the scientific community can collaborate on in the years ahead.

While Musk toys with what to rename the Mars Colonial Transporter, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program celebrated a somewhat less than joyful anniversary on Friday. It was two years ago that the space agency awarded contracts to Boeing and Musk’s SpaceX to build and flight test vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Under SpaceX’s original schedule, the first Crew Dragon flight test without astronauts aboard was scheduled for March 2016. A flight with a crew on board would have been flown in October 2016.

SpaceX has not announced a new schedule. However, SpaceflightNow.com launch schedule page has the first flight without a crew occurring in July 2017. If that is accurate, it means SpaceX’s Crew Dragon schedule has slipped 16 months in the 24 months since the contract was awarded.

A successful flight to ISS with a crew would follow several months later after the automated flight. Crew Dragon would then undergo certification review before beginning commercial crew flights to the space station.

Meanwhile, Boeing has experienced schedule slips as well. The company’s Flight Test Readiness Review, which would precede an automated orbital flight by the CST-100 Starliner, has slipped seven months from January to August 2017, according to a NASA Office of Inspector General (IG) report released earlier this month. The readiness review for the crew flight has slipped from April to November 2017.

The IG report said Boeing and SpaceX are experiencing technical challenges in building their crew vehicles. The audit concluded that the first commercial flight to the space station was unlikely to take place before the end of 2018.

Editor’s Note: I was remiss in not explaining that the IG also found significant delays on the NASA side in  reviewing commercial crew hazard reports from the two companies.