Crew Dragon Flight Set for Jan. 7

NASA astronaut Suni Williams in a Crew Dragon simulator.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 7 in the first flight test of NASA’s commercial crew program.

The vehicle will make an automated flight to the International Space Station (ISS) without a crew. If the flight is successful, a crewed flight test will follow with astronauts aboard.

A source with NASA’s Commercial Crew program who is not authorized to speak with the media said that not all Crew Dragon systems will be tested in the January flight. As a result, more work might be necessary for the flight with crew, potentially delaying it beyond the planned June launch date.

In between the flights, SpaceX will also conduct an in-flight abort test to demonstrate the ability of the spacecraft to escape from a malfunctioning booster. The company already an abort test from the launch pad several years ago.

Following the successful completion of the two Crew Dragon flight tests, NASA will certify Crew Dragon to carry astronauts to the station on a commercial basis. That will end the space agency’s dependence upon Russian Soyuz vehicles, which are the only vehicles that can fly humans to the station at present.

Boeing is set to make two flight tests with its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the space station later in 2019. The company also needs to conduct a launch pad abort test.

The source said the first Starliner test is planned as an all-up test with all of Starliner’s systems. If the flight goes well, NASA is considering making the flight test with crew into a long-duration mission.

The space agency has reserved seats on Russian Soyuz vehicles until January 2020. If commercial crew vehicles are not operational by then, NASA could lose crew access to the space station.