Back in 2016, during the heat of the presidential election, I had lunch in southern Louisiana with a senior manager of NASA’s Space Launch System program. We were speaking off the record, so I won’t share his name even now. But one of the important points he sought to make was how a number of big-ticket items in NASA’s portfolio were set up for the next president.
During a first term for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, he said, there would be a lot of big “wins.” For the first time since 2011, humans would launch into space from the United States via NASA’s commercial crew program. The James Webb Space Telescope, an epic scientific instrument, would fly. And the Space Launch System rocket—the largest booster since the Saturn V—would take to the skies for the first time.
A little more than three years later, it is clear that only one of these three achievements has a chance of happening in the year 2020: a commercial crew flight. It will happen on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner, or perhaps both. So what may have appeared as a wealth of big spaceflight moments for the Trump administration has withered to one.
The NASA administrator appointed by the Trump White House, Jim Bridenstine, must know this. Which is why I was surprised when the administrator splashed cold water on Musk’s big Starship reveal event last month and appeared to attack SpaceX. Although people close to Bridenstine insisted this was not a jab at the company, some SpaceX employees (justifiably) felt targeted by a tweet from Bridenstine, who is rarely critical on Twitter.
On Thursday, however, cooler heads appeared to prevail as Bridenstine visited SpaceX’s rocket factory and headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif. After touring the facilities, he and Musk stood side-by-side at the factory, smiled for the cameras, and took a few questions.
Bridenstine and Musk were on the same page, saying that the commercial crew program was the top priority for both the space agency and the rocket company. “This is a big deal for our country,” Bridenstine said. “We can’t get it wrong. In fact, we have to get it right.”
Added Musk, “Crew Dragon is absolutely the overwhelming priority.”
They also made nice. Bridenstine praised SpaceX’s “iterative design philosophy,” in which the company builds vehicles, flies them, and after they fail, SpaceX fixes them. This is very different than the much slower, linear design process used by traditional aerospace partners for large development projects. “I like it being a part of the mix of our contract capabilities,” Bridenstine said.
In turn, Musk said delays to the commercial crew program were not due to NASA’s bureaucracy or slow review processes, as is often suggested by fans of SpaceX. “It is very important for everyone to go through the data and cover everything possible,” he said.
During the presentation, both Bridenstine and Musk provided information about the schedule for the first Crew Dragon mission that will send astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken into orbit. If all goes well, Bridenstine said, the mission could happen during the first quarter of 2020.
Two main technical issues remain to be resolved: parachutes and the in-flight abort system. Regarding parachutes, Musk said the company is going to a more advanced parachute, dubbed Mark 3, that has more durable Zylon lines connecting to the parachute canopy. Zylon is stronger than Kevlar and about three times stronger than the previously used nylon lines. SpaceX has an aggressive test program during which it hopes to complete 10 tests of the new parachutes between now and the end of 2019. If all of those tests show good performance, there may be enough data to put to rest concerns about parachute performance when Dragon re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.
The other issue is the Super Draco thruster system used during an abort. This thruster experienced a catastrophic failure during an April test, but since then SpaceX and NASA believe they have identified the problem and implemented a fix. A ground-based test of this system should occur within a couple of weeks, Musk said. That will be followed by an in-flight abort test in late November or early December.
After this point, if all the testing goes well, engineers from both SpaceX and NASA will review the data to ensure that every step to improve safety of the vehicle has been taken.
“Space is hard, obviously,” Musk said. “Very few countries have created an orbital vehicle. I guess just three. This is a very hard thing. There are a lot of people working super hard at SpaceX and NASA and our suppliers. They’re doing their best.”