SpaceX Crew Dragon Flight with Astronauts Likely in Second Quarter

NASA and SpaceX completed a launch escape demonstration of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket on Jan. 19, 2020. The test began at 10:30 a.m. EST with liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on a mission to show the spacecraft’s capability to safely separate from the rocket in the unlikely event of an inflight emergency. (Credits: NASA Television)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With an in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft on Sunday, SpaceX has apparently cleared the last major hardware milestone along the way to flying crews to the International Space Station (ISS) later this year.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said that if reviews of the test data and hardware do not turn up any show stoppers, the flight would likely take place in the second quarter — i.e., sometime in April, May or June.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on Sunday that NASA has not decided whether the mission would be of short or long duration. The original flight test, known as Demo-2, was originally scheduled to last about two weeks. However, the spacecraft that will be used for the flight is capable of a longer stay.

NASA is is running out of seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft on which American astronauts have launched since the retirement of the space shuttle in July 2011.

Bridenstine said that despite the prospects of a long duration Crew Dragon mission beginning this spring, NASA will still buy an additional Soyuz seat from the Russians to guard against further delays in the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Recent seats have cost in excess of $80 million.

The other CCP provider, Boeing, conducted a flight test of its Starliner crew vehicle in December. That spacecraft, which flew without a crew, was unable to perform a docking with the space station due to a software glitch. It flew a modified two-day mission in Earth orbit before landing safely in New Mexico.

A source familiar with the Commercial Crew program who requested anonymity said NASA is expected to make a decision this week on whether to allow a crew to fly on the next Starliner flight and to attempt a docking at the station.

The source indicated that barring any serious problems discovered during analysis of Starliner’s first flight, a crewed flight could take place in the third or fourth quarter of this year.

SpaceX will earn $30 million for the successful in-flight abort test. The flight had been listed as milestone no. 14 in the company’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) contract, which it signed with NASA in August 2012.

SpaceX Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Milestone
Milestones: 20
Milestones Completed: 20
Total Award: $460 Million

No.DescriptionOriginal Contracted Estimated Completion Date
StatusAmount
14In-Flight Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct an in-flight abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The in-flight abort test will supplement the pad abort test and complete the corners-of-the-box stress cases. The in-flight abort scenario represents a Dragon abort while under propulsive flight of the launch vehicle during the worst-case dynamic loads on the CTS.April 2014January 2020$30 Million

The CCiCap agreement was followed by the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract, which is designed to take SpaceX through final development, testing and certification of Crew Dragon.

The table below shows SpaceX’s milestones when the contract was signed in September 2014.

SpaceX Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) Milestones

NO.DESCRIPTIONDATE
1Certification Baseline Review (CBR)December 2014
2Initial Propulsion Module Testing CompleteApril 2015
3Avionics Test Bed ActivationMay 2015
4Delta Critical Design Review (dCDR)June 2015
5Docking System Qualification Testing CompleteAugust 2015
6Propulsive Land Landing Test CompleteSeptember 2015
7Launch Site Operational Readiness ReviewNovember 2015
8Flight Test without Crew Certification Review (FTCR)
December 2015
9ECLSS Integrated Test CompleteFebruary 2016
10Flight to ISS Without CrewMarch 2016
11Parachute Qualification CompleteApril 2016
12Space Suit Qualification Testing CompleteMay 2016
13Launch Site Operational Readiness Review for Crew
June 2016
14Design Certification Review (DCR)July 2016
15Flight Test Readiness Review (FTRR)
September 2016
16Flight to ISS with Crew
October 2016
17Operations Readiness Review (ORR)January 2017
18Certification Review (CR)April 2017

The first milestone was delayed several months to December 2014 after losing bidder Sierra Nevada Corporation unsuccessfully appealed NASA’s awards to SpaceX and Boeing to the Government Accountability Office. Several of SpaceX’s milestones were split or added in the past five years.

If SpaceX’s crewed flight takes place in the second quarter, the company will be roughly 3.5 years behind the original schedule agreed to about 5.5 years earlier.

Boeing is running more than three years behind schedule. The company originally planned to conduct its Crewed Flight Test Flight Test Readiness Review in April 2017. The company would have followed that milestone with a crewed Starliner flight to ISS one or two months later.

The table below shows Boeing’s milestone under the contract the company signed in September 2014 for the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The table also includes milestones that were subsequently added, split or canceled by 2017.

Boeing Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCAP) Milestones
No.DescriptionOriginal Contracted Estimated Completion Date
Added/Split
Milestone Estimated Completion Date
1Certification Baseline Review. A review to ensure baseline requirements identified are in line with NASA’s guidance; identify the current Crew Transportation System design baseline; define the plan and schedule to complete design, development, test, evaluation, and certification for the Crew Transportation System design, production, and operations; and define top safety, technical, cost and schedule risks.September-October 2014 
2Ground Segment Critical Design Review. A review to determine that maturity of the ground segment is appropriate to support proceeding with full-scale fabrication, assembly, integration, and test.October 2014
 
3Phase 2 Safety Review – Boeing Internal Review (Phase II Safety Review – Part B). Review of the hazard reports/analyses, including cause identification, development of controls, and specific safety verification methods.December 2014 
4Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B – NASA Safety Technical Review Board Readiness Review (Integrated Systems). Split milestone from the Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B (Integrated Systems) milestone. February 2015
5Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B – NASA Safety Technical Review Board 80% Completion (Integrated System). Split milestone from the Phase 2 Safety Review – Part B (Integrated Systems) milestone. June 2015
6Delta Integrated Critical Design Review. A review to determine that maturity of the design across launch segment, spacecraft segment, and ground segment is appropriate to proceed to assembly, integration, and test activities.January 2015 
7Launch Segment Critical Design Review. Split milestone from the Integrated Critical Design Review. May 2015
8Qualification Test Vehicle Production Readiness Review. A review to verify that facilities, processes, and contingency plans are ready to begin spacecraft assembly operations.March 2015 
9Checkout and Control System Activation/ Validation Tests Complete. Provide quick-look report briefing of Checkout and Control System activation and validation testing documenting test results and open work required for system to be ready to support Qualification Test Vehicle acceptance testing.July 2015 
10Qualification Test Vehicle Integrated Readiness Review. A review to ensure test hardware, test plans, procedures, facilities, support equipment, and any required test support software are progressing in development to support planned test activities.August 2015 
11Structural Test Article Test Readiness Review Part 1. A review to ensure the test article is progressing in development.April 2015 
12Structural Test Article Test Readiness Review Part 2. Split milestone from Structural Test Article Test Readiness Review Part 1. February 2016
13Flight Software Demonstration Nominal Launch, Docking and De-Orbit. A demonstration of the spacecraft flight software’s ability to autonomously perform the mission for a nominal launch, rendezvous, docking, undocking, and de-orbit sequence.October 2015 
14Orbital Flight Test Configuration Performance & Weight Status Report. A review of preliminary report that includes launch vehicle configuration, Spacecraft configuration, integrated flight vehicle weight, performance estimate, and performance margins for the flight test mission.December 2015 
15Mission Control Center Integrated Simulation System Acceptance Review. A review of preliminary report that includes launch vehicle configuration, Spacecraft configuration, integrated flight vehicle weight, performance estimate, and performance margins for the flight test mission.January 2016 
16
Qualification Test Vehicle Test Readiness Review. A review to verify all requirements changes are complete, test article as-built configuration, test procedures are complete and approved, facilities and support equipment readiness to support test, all personnel have the required training, and review test based hazards to ensure controls are incorporated. (Canceled)April 2016
(Canceled)
 
16
Ground Verification Test and Environmental Qualification Test, Test Readiness Review: Replaced the Qualification Test Vehicle Integrated Readiness Review, per Boeing’s request. A review to ensure readiness to start Ground Verification Test and Environmental Qualification Test by verifying all requirements changes are complete, targeted test article as-built configurations will support objectives of tests, facilities and support equipment readiness to support test, all personnel supporting have the required training, and review of test based hazards to ensure proper controls are being incorporated. August 2016
17Integrated Parachute System Drop Tests 1 & 2 Complete. A complete integrated parachute drop test that will validate parachute system deployment sequence, timing and performance in preparation for the Pad Abort Test.
June 2016 
18Orbital Flight Test Flight Operations Review. A review to evaluate and baseline flight operations products to ensure the safe and accurate implementation of mission requirements.
August 2016 
19Spacecraft Servicing Operational Readiness Review. A review to demonstrate the readiness of ground support facilities and personnel to execute the planned objectives and requirements of flight and stage.November 2016 
20ISS Design Certification Review (Delivery Milestone). A review to demonstrate that the Crew Transportation System and operations meet all applicable requirements; demonstrate schedule performance; and define top safety, technical, cost, and schedule risks.November 2016 
21Service Module Hot Fire Launch Abort Test Complete. A complete launch abort engine firings to validate propulsion system performance in preparation for Pad Abort Test.September 2016 
22ISS Software Interface Control Document – Boeing Internal Implementation Plan for Engineering Release 8.0/ER 9.0. Milestone added due to NASA imposed software upgrades. July 2016
23Interim Review of Water/Land Landing Qualification. Milestone added at NASA’s request to conduct a review of the water/land landing qualification tests to ensure they are progressing and to incorporate any deviations of the plans that may be warranted. October 2016
24ER 8.0 Release: Milestone added due to NASA imposed software upgrades. November 2016
25Pad Abort Test Complete. A review of quick look report on completion of Pad Abort Test.December 2016 
26Orbital Flight Test Flight Test Readiness Review. A review that demonstrates readiness to conduct an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test and defines a risk baseline for flight test activities.January 2017 
27Crewed Flight Test Design Certification Review. A review of the final system qualification performance and associated analyses to support Verification Closure Notices closures that were exceptions at the ISS Design Certification Review and review all open actions.March 2017 
28Crewed Flight Test Flight Test Readiness Review. A review to demonstrate readiness to conduct a crewed flight test and define risk baseline for crewed flight test activities.April 2017 
29Operational Readiness Review. A review to demonstrate that the actual Crew Transportation System characteristics and procedures used in operations reflect the deployed state of the System. The review evaluates all project and support hardware, software, personnel, and procedures to ensure flight and associated ground system are in compliance with requirements.July 2017 
30ER 9.0 Release. Milestone added due to NASA imposed software upgrades. April 2017
31Boeing Internal Payload Fault Isolation and Telemetry Implementation Plan. A plan to ensure NASA imposed hardware and software changes related to the Payload Control Unit are ready to be executed by the teams. May 2016
32Payload Control Unit and Payload Telemetry Modification Delta Critical Design Review. Perform a Delta Critical Design Review meeting focused on the design closure of all modified equipment and whether system performance is within certified limits. This review will encompass, at a minimum, the Payload Control Unit, harnesses, Ethernet cables, and software modifications. November 2016
33Payload Control Unit Modification Install Readiness Review. A review to ensure all aspects of the modification are ready for installation, assembly, integration, and test. The software, equipment, and production planning needed to modify the vehicle will be reviewed to ensure the modification can move ahead without the risk of rework. September 2017
34Certification Review (Delivery Milestone). A review in which the contractor provides evidence that the Crew Transportation System has met all NASA requirements and provides documentation of the crew safety and mission assurance risks.August 2017 

There are a variety of reasons for the delays, including under funding by Congress, delays by NASA in reviewing documentation, problems with documentation submitted the companies, the need to meet strict certification standards, added or modified milestones, and technical problems discovered during development (“this is why we test”).