by Douglas Messier
What a difference a few phone calls make.
A couple of weeks ago, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk were sniping at each other in public over the company’s commitment — or lack thereof — to completing development and testing of the Crew Dragon spacecraft designed to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
But, after a series of phone calls, it was all smiles on Thursday as the two men put on a united front while providing a status update on the program at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. Here is what we learned:
- NASA and SpaceX are in agreement that there’s no higher priority than restoring U.S. human launch capability;
- critical testing lies ahead for Crew Dragon’s parachutes and propulsion system, with more delays possible;
- a first quarter 2020 crewed flight to ISS is iff and would rely on everything going very smoothly;
- NASA is still searching for someone to oversee its human spaceflight programs on a permanent basis; and,
- SpaceX’s Starship is just all right with Jim.
Bridenstine and Musk were joined by astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will fly the first crewed flight test of the vehicle sometime next year. Exactly when depends on the outcome of a number of crucial tests.
Parachutes: The Airborne Systems Mark II parachutes have experienced problems and failures during testing. SpaceX will be switching to the advanced Mark III version, which Musk called the best parachutes ever made.
SpaceX hopes to conduct 10 drop tests of the Mark III parachutes by the end of the year. The Crew Dragon spacecraft uses four parachutes instead of the three chutes used in the smaller cargo Dragon vehicle that resupplies ISS.
Bridenstine stressed that NASA needs to see consistent, repeatable performance in the Mark III parachutes across the upcoming tests before Behnken and Hurley would be allowed to fly to the station.
Propulsion: A Crew Dragon capsule exploded on a test stand in Florida on April 20 due to a propellant leak. The spacecraft, which had flown to ISS without a crew earlier this year, was being prepared for a crucial in-flight abort test.
SpaceX has redesigned the system and is testing the modifications. The system will undergo a static test before the in-flight abort test is conducted. Musk has said the flight could take place in late November or early December.
Schedule: On Sept. 28, Musk said hardware for the in-flight abort test would be shipped to Cape Canaveral for processing in October. Hardware for the crewed flight would follow in November.
He added SpaceX could send Behnken and Hurley to ISS within three or four months, i.e., the end of January. Bridenstine later said the timeline for the crewed flight was unrealistic.
The in-flight abort hardware was shipped to Florida earlier this month. However, SpaceX is now expecting to ship the spacecraft for the crewed flight by the end of December. That would make a flight at the end of January unlikely.
Bridenstine and Musk said it is possible that if everything goes well with the testing of the parachutes and propulsion system, no other problems crop up unexpectedly, and Crew Dragon integration and preparation go smoothly, then Behnken and Hurley might fly to ISS in the first quarter of 2020, i.e., March 30.
That’s a lot of ifs. Bridenstine and Musk were careful to stress the schedule could slip further into 2020, and that Q1 was not a firm estimate.
A source familiar with the Commercial Crew program who requested anonymity said that a Q2 flight is much more likely. Thus, the flight could take place between April 1 and June 30.
Bridenstine has said NASA might have to purchase additional seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft if SpaceX and Boeing, which is building its Starliner vehicle under the Commercial Crew Program, experience further delays in their programs. Those seats cost about $85 million apiece.
Boeing said this week it plans to conduct a Starliner pad abort test in early November. A flight to the space station without a crew would follow on Dec. 17. The company is not conducting an in-flight abort test.
If the pad abort and flight tests go well, then Boeing would be cleared to fly astronauts on a test flight to ISS in 2020.
Starship is Just All Right Wih Me: Bridenstine said he and Musk were in strong agreement that the highest priority was to once again be launching U.S. astronauts on U.S. spacecraft from U.S. soil.
Musk seconded the sentiment, saying it was “a dream come true” to fly astronauts ISS.
It was a sharp change in tone. In a tweet sent on the eve of Musk’s update on SpaceX’s Starship project on Sept. 28, Bridenstine questioned whether the entrepreneur and his company were sufficiently focused on Crew Dragon.
Starship is primarily designed to send humans to Mars to fulfill Musk’s dream of establishing a colony there. Musk has also pitched it for lunar missions, making it a potential rival to NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft and planned lunar lander that make up the Artemis program.
When asked about Bridenstine’s tweet during a CNN interview, Musk responded by making a joke about how far behind schedule NASA is with SLS. He then laughed and mugged for the camera.
Bridenstine said the comment was not helpful. He urged Musk and SpaceX to focus on getting to Earth orbit first and finishing the Crew Dragon program that NASA is paying the company billions of dollars to develop.
On Thursday, Bridenstine said NASA wants Starship to succeed. The space agency wants to be one of many customers of launch providers in a marketplace where costs are reduced through competition.
The NASA administrator said the space agency has been assisting SpaceX on Starship in a number of technical areas, including providing data on potential landing locations on Mars.
NASA also recently gave the company a contract to work with the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center to develop orbital refueling technology under its Tipping Point partnership program.
New Human Spaceflight Leader: NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate has been without a permanent leader since Bridenstine demoted Bill Gerstenmaier and his deputy in July over delays in the Artemis lunar program.
Bridenstine said former NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox is doing a great job running the directorate on an acting basis. He added that a decision on a permanent replacement is weeks away.