NASA kicked off the Commercial Crew Development Program in 2010 to support the development of new crewed spacecraft. Here we are, almost a decade into the program and on the verge of a manned launch. It’s taken a long time to get here, and it may be a little longer still. SpaceX has announced yet another delay in its Dragon 2 test flight, which was supposed to take place this month.
The precise date has slipped numerous times, and this is after ample delays in earlier phases of the program. We’re in the home stretch now, so each change in the schedule is that much more frustrating. SpaceX initially wanted to conduct the first test launch of its crewed Dragon capsule in 2017. Then the timeline slipped to 2018, and then it was late 2018. recently, SpaceX promised a January 2019 launch… and then it decided February was more likely. You can probably blame the government shutdown for that one. Now, we’re looking at March 2, according to SpaceX.
The mission profile remains unchanged. While this is the crewed version of the Dragon capsule, it won’t have any humans aboard for this first test flight. The craft will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket and will travel autonomously to the International Space Station (ISS). Upon docking, the capsule will be inspected by the ISS crew. NASA plans to leave the spacecraft docked for two weeks before sending it back to Earth.
Targeting March 2 for Crew Dragon’s first flight to the @Space_Station https://t.co/oJRtDhV3aL pic.twitter.com/lLw1FJHLvI
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 6, 2019
SpaceX and Boeing are the primary contractors for the Commercial Crew Development Program. A fuel leak pushed back Boeing’s plans, and it currently aims for an uncrewed flight in April.
We’ve learned time and time again that space is hard, and there’s a lot that can go wrong when you willingly strap yourself to a tube filled with explosive fuel. People have given their lives to further humanity’s understanding of the universe, and NASA is doing everything it can to make sure the Dragon 2 and Starliner are as safe as they can be.
At the same time, there is some urgency on NASA’s end. The agency has been buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules to get astronauts to and from the ISS ever since the Shuttle’s retirement. NASA doesn’t have seats booked for 2020, so at least one of these vessels needs to be operational if we’re to keep sending people into space.