Flight Tests to Prove Commercial Systems Fit for Human Spaceflight

Crew Dragon and Starliner at the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. (NASA PR) — The first test flights for new spacecraft designed by commercial companies in collaboration with NASA to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station from the United States are known as Demo-1 for SpaceX and Orbital Flight Test for Boeing.

NASA’s goal in collaborating with Boeing and SpaceX is to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation to and from station on the companies’ spacecraft. Both companies have matured their designs, are making significant progress through their extensive testing campaigns, and are headed toward flight tests to validate their systems.

An uncrewed flight test was not a NASA requirement for certifying these systems for human spaceflight. Boeing and SpaceX volunteered to perform these tests to demonstrate their systems are safe for crew.

“This was above and beyond the NASA requirement in the contract,” said Kathy Lueders, Commercial Crew Program manager at NASA Kennedy. “Both partners said they really wanted to have an uncrewed flight test to make sure the integrated rockets, spacecraft and re-entry systems are all working as designed to be able to ensure the integrated system is functioning.”

Each test flight will provide data on the performance of the rockets, spacecraft, ground systems, and operations to ensure the systems are safe to fly astronauts. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft will be launched atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“Tomorrow we will meet the astronauts who will be the first to fly the CST-100 Starliner. Our commitment has always been to provide NASA and those crews the highest level of mission assurance,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew effort. “We believe the earliest time we can confidently do that will be in mid-2019 after flying an uncrewed flight test late this year or early next year. I’m incredibly proud of the progress our team has made, and it has been inspiring to watch them work through challenges quickly, while developing a brand new human-rated spacecraft that Boeing, NASA and the nation can be proud of.”

SpaceX designed its Crew Dragon spacecraft to launch atop the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions for NASA remains the highest priority for SpaceX,” said Benji Reed, Director of Crew Mission Management at SpaceX. “We look forward to launching Crew Dragon—designed to be one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built—and returning human-spaceflight capabilities to the United States for the first time since the Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011. SpaceX is targeting November 2018 for Crew Dragon’s first demonstration mission and April 2019 for Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission, which will carry two NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”

NASA is making crew assignments now for the Boeing Crew Flight Test and SpaceX Demo-2 to support flight training as we return to launching our astronauts from American soil. As a partner approaches its target readiness date, NASA will work with the company and the Eastern Range to identify launch dates within the busy International Space Station schedule to ensure science investigations, as well as logistics activities and critical operations continue while these new spacecraft are tested.

Many of the team members leading the unique public-private partnership believe the agency is on the cusp of something life changing with its Commercial Crew Program.

“I’m excited to be part of the future of space travel,” said Jon Cowart, acting deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program’s Mission Management and Integration office at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “When we get to this point the companies will have tested every piece of the spacecraft individually, but there is so much more learning that occurs when the spacecraft is actually operated in space. The systems will be operated in the actual environment to test it and ensure it’s ready for crew.”

The hardware for these uncrewed missions is being prepared for launch. Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is being outfitted at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility on the Kennedy and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V dual engine Centaur that will launch Starliner will be shipped to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in August to prepare for the upcoming flight. Separately, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft for Demo-1 arrived to the Cape in July for final processing. Falcon 9’s first and second stages for the Demo-1 mission are targeted to ship from SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California to the company’s rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas for additional testing in August.

Once the uncrewed flight tests are complete and the data reviews have validated the spacecraft systems, NASA astronauts will have their first opportunity to fly in the spacecraft. Crew for Boeing’s Crew Flight Test and SpaceX’s Demo-2 flights will each include at least a flight commander and pilot aboard to test out the systems.

These flight tests will have similar configurations to the uncrewed tests, but the crew will have the ability to interface with spacecraft displays, communicate with mission control, and practice manual controls during flight. Starliner and Crew Dragon will dock and undock autonomously to the space station before returning the crew safely home.

“The crew right now is actually working on integrated crew simulations on the flight systems,” said Lueders. “They are providing input to the partners to help ensure the interior of the cabin is appropriately located and set up so crew can function and conduct key activities. They’re verifying crew layout, doing simulations where they’re actually practicing their maneuvers, and also checking out the software and the display systems, and everything else for the crew to be functioning safely in the spacecraft.”

After successful completion of the flight tests with crew, NASA will review flight data to verify the systems meet the agency’s safety and performance certification requirements and are ready to begin regular servicing missions to the space station.

“I see parallels between commercial crew and the early aviation industry, when government nurtured that commercial innovation,” said Cowart. “In similar fashion, NASA is empowering private industry to gain solid footing in low-Earth orbit, which will allow NASA to explore new frontiers in deep space.”

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Are SpaceX and Boeing planning to train their own flight crews? The same 4 NASA astronauts can’t fly all the missions.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Both the Dragon 2 and the Starliner are autonomous. The passengers (not crew) just rides along and take notes, unless there is major system failures in the spacecrafts.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Because systems never fail. Self-driving cars never kill anybody and automated docking systems never ram space stations. Whoever wants to sell commercial flights to a Bigelow space station should start training some astronauts.

  • redneck

    Yeah, it’s not like they could fly a couple of missions each. One mission is all anyone can fly.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    So I take it you have a pretty pessimistic view of the real future of commercial manned spaceflight?

  • redneck

    I have a sarcastic view of the idea that astronauts can only fly every several years. Pilots need to fly often for proficiency. Week up and a week down gives a couple dozen flights annually per pilot. Wait a decade for an opportunity, and then fly three times in the next one is not a serious spaceflight operation.

  • Not Invented Here

    Are SpaceX and Boeing planning to train their own flight crews?


    The same 4 NASA astronauts can’t fly all the missions.

    There’re a lot of NASA astronauts waiting to fly, they will be trained to fly commercial vehicles.

  • Robert G. Oler

    not really

  • ThomasLMatula

    So Commercial Crew is just Contractor Crew now with a private firm providing the vehicles as in the old days and NASA astronauts flying them. The only difference is that NASA owned the vehicles and spacesuits before, now they just rent them.

    No wonder Elon Musk has moved on to BFR and written the Dragon2 off.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It does look a lot like NASA has managed to transformed Commercial Crew into a dead end for commercial HSF.

  • windbourne

    dragon 2 is not written off in any fashion.
    Elon simply keeps his R&D staff moving forward. It is by far the smartest thing that you can do when you have a group of smart ppl.

  • windbourne

    It is interesting to finally see ppl taking note of how infrequently these flights will go. this really is not a smart thing for either these companies or the crews.
    As I have been saying for a long time, we need CONgress/NASA to fund getting private space stations going. Like yesterday. If we have at least 2 going, then it makes it possible to bring other nations onboard and have them train.
    From there, we should then leap back to the moon, but with multiple companies and our ISS partners.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Can’t imagine anyone would entirely agree with your first two sentences – does anyone fully expect that even automated systems ever be flawless. What is certain is that humans regularly fail and human driven cars frequently kill, and automated systems will consistently lower the death toll. Obviously, with the complexity of the flight control of spacecraft in particular, it’s best to keep the ape out of the loop wherever possible.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Are you saying that we the taxpayers should help subsidize private business? I have no problem with paying for what the powers-that-be say we need, when we need it, but the government only needs so much. If manned spaceflight is going to go truly commercial private concerns will have to find something that the private sector will be willing to pay for and create a profitable mechanism to meet that need. Right now we have transportation companies all vying for their “share” of governmental contracts while nobody outside of Bigelow has bothered to create anything more than paper products to create and sustain a private market. Even Bigelow seems stalled and appears to have forgotten that if you are going to build and LEASE out space in a private structure, you are responsible for maintenance, not the tenant.

  • windbourne

    America alone, paid over 100B for the ISS.
    When we had the Shuttle, we paid over a 100M / seat to get a crew of 7 up to the ISS (1.2-1.5B / flight, so I assume about 1/2 for crew and 1/2 for cargo or .7-.8 B for what 3 dragons take up for less than .5B).
    Right now, we pay 70-80M / seat to the Russians for all of the western partners.
    Basically, America is funding all of ISS to the tune of 3-5B / year.

    Now, cargo costs ~130-150M to send up about 1 dragon with 6 tonnes.
    Shortly we will be have 4-7 ppl go up for about 150M. That means 20-40M / seat. That is quite a bit less than the shuttle or Russia.

    How much did America spend to help get SX up to speed? 300M for cargo/F9, which the savings vs the shuttle or ULA/Boeing/L-mart is such that NASA recouped that LONG AGO.
    Now, we have human launch. SX has gotten ~3.1B while Boeing has gotten ~4.8B. Supposedly SX has 6 flights on this, or about 1B for the flights. Not sure that Boeing has even 1 flight in their 5B. Question is, how long will it take to repay the human launch? Im not sure. This one is hard to judge. BUT, with 3 companies about to do human launches, it should mean that America will never lose HSF again.

    So, that leaves space stations. If we can spend .5B for 2-3 companies to get going on private space stations AND then able to have ppl up there cheaper than on the ISS, it should be worth it. More importantly, once these companies are going in space and vetted, they should be able to deal with a lunar and martian base. All systems will be vetted.
    I would also think that any trip to mars that does not involve a nuclear engine will need a lot more space. As such, something like a BA2100 would help SX.

  • windbourne

    I suspect that both Boeing and SX have plenty of ppl trained for this already.

  • windbourne

    First off, we only flew the shuttle but several times / year. As such, we did not get much in way of flights there.
    However, if we can get the new space space stations going, then we will likely see a LOT more flights and ppl going into space.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    That would be nice. It would make an interesting story.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    As far as human flight is concerned, it seems that for our ~7.9B we have gotten as yet unrealized (but hopefully soon) capability. SX and Boeing got MAJOR funding to build their systems and will then sell their services to us, not at cost but with a profit margin built in. Seems like a pretty sweetheart deal for a company that had dreams of manned spaceflight but needed more cash than they had to make it happen and a company that was ready to abandon commercial manned spaceflight entirely if they weren’t guaranteed their share of government cheese. Who is the third company – Blue?

    As for space stations, we already have a laboratory that meets our needs. At some point, it will no longer be serviceable and that will open the door for Bigelow or others. Bigelow needs to mature and test his designs and NASA is already helping but he needs to seek private funding. Business is business and whether you are running a restaurant or building space stations you still have to identify a market and convince customers that you can supply what they need. I honestly wish all the companies the best of luck but if you want to be a capitalist, you can’t rely on the government to make your dreams come true.

  • windbourne

    no, but from America’s POV, it is in OUR best interest to help get these companies off the ground and to quit feeding the bottom feeders at Boeing, L-Mart, ULA, etc.
    That is the group that is destroying our space industry.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    That is a pure political opinion. It is also in OUR interest to spend the money on medical research. STEM education. making sure all of our people have access to both nutritious food and healthcare. The next time we consider public-private partnerships we should make sure that they are true partnerships where the federal government is a real percentage partner with the private entity. There can be buyout clauses written into the contracts just like in the private business world so that budding entrepreneurs who really do get rich building the better mousetrap can own everything outright after buying out the stakeholders who made it possible in the first place.

  • Jeff2Space

    Both spacecraft can be flown manually. But, it would not surprise me one bit if there were “problems” with both spacecraft which required them to be manually flown during docking with ISS.

    This pretty much happens with every single Soyuz and Progress docking even though the automated systems are perfectly capable of flying the docking. It’s a matter of pride that the pilots actually get to pilot the otherwise automated craft. That and I’ve heard that cosmonauts get bonuses for such work.

  • Jeff2Space

    The alternative would be to turn SpaceX into a “cash cow” and fly Falcons and Dragon 2s for several decades. I can think of one other US company that did just that with their government launch business and look at where they are now.

  • Jeff2Space

    Yea, well that’s what happens when you have dozens of astronauts and precious few flight opportunities. Yet NASA keeps training new “classes” of astronauts every few years. Is it any surprise that so many of the former shuttle commanders and pilots retired after the shuttle stopped flying?

  • Jeff2Space

    LOL, look at SLS. It’s going to fly at most once per year. The evidence is the recent RFI for new RS-25E engines which specifies a delivery rate of four per year. With four RS-25E engines on every SLS first stage, it’s not hard to do the math.