What Lies Ahead for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program

Completing an end-to-end uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon departed the International Space Station at 2:32 a.m. EST Friday, March 8, 2019, and splashed down at 8:45 a.m. in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 nautical miles off the Florida coast. (Credits: NASA Television)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The splashdown of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft this morning after a successful automated flight to the International Space Station (ISS) kicks off a busy period for NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

The first tasks for SpaceX and NASA will be to examine spacecraft and analyze data collected during the Demo 1 flight to see how well the vehicle performed and to address any problems that came up.

Earlier today, an agency officials said they saw nothing thus far to preclude flying astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon later this year. Before that can happen, Elon Musk’s company must complete three other milestones.

The first one is an in-flight abort test using the same Crew Dragon capsule that was fished out of the Atlantic Ocean this morning. The vehicle will be launched aboard a Falcon 9 that will be shut down prematurely. The planning date for that test is June.

A Crew Dragon with two astronauts aboard will then conduct a flight test to the space station. The planning date for that flight is July.

Finally, NASA and SpaceX will spend several months certifying the vehicle to begin flying astronauts to ISS under a commercial contract.

While all that is going on, NASA will be working with Boeing on preparing the company’s Starliner spacecraft to fly astronauts. The planning dates for upcoming Starliner milestones are:

  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): No earlier than (NET) April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019.

Boeing’s crew flight test could turn into a long-term stay at the space station. Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who is now an executive at Boeing, is training for an extended mission aboard the orbiting facility.