On Tuesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk offered updates on progress with the Crew Dragon spacecraft the company is building for NASA. The new information suggests that Musk is now prioritizing the program to ready Dragon to fly astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station.
This is a critical time for NASA, which is exploring the possibility of buying additional Russian Soyuz seats for missions to the International Space Station in mid- or late-2020.
This may not be possible, due to political concerns as well as long lead-time needed to manufacture additional Soyuz vehicles. NASA’s only other option is extending crew missions on the orbiting laboratory. Paramount to the agency is keeping at least one US crew member on the station in addition to its Russian complement.
Musk shared the new information on Twitter Tuesday in reply to a tweet by this reporter, which noted that “full panic” has ensued at NASA headquarters as the agency seeks to buy seats, possibly extend crew missions, and begin flying commercial crew missions.
Before it flies a crewed mission, SpaceX must demonstrate the in-flight abort capabilities of the Dragon spacecraft. During a rocket failure, the spacecraft’s Super Draco thrusters are designed to fire quickly to pull the spacecraft away from an exploding booster. This upcoming test took on added importance after the explosion of a Crew Dragon spacecraft during thruster tests in April.
Since that time, however, both SpaceX and NASA officials have said they understand the cause of that accident, and the company has begun to implement changes to prevent it from occurring again.
On Tuesday, Musk said both the Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon vehicle that will be used for the in-flight abort test have been shipped to Cape Canaveral, Florida. The hardware must still be configured for the test flight, but he estimated that it will occur toward the end of November or early December.
The other key technical issue that SpaceX must address is its parachute system. The company has experienced a couple of failures during the dozens of drop tests it has performed with its four-parachute system. The company is seeking to balance the robustness of the parachute system while keeping its overall mass down.
“We had to reallocate some resources to speed this up & received great support from Airborne, our parachute supplier,” Musk said on Twitter. “I was at their Irvine factory with the SpaceX team on Sat and Sun. We’re focusing on the advanced Mk3 chute, which provides highest safety factor for astronauts.”
Despite all of the technical work ahead, Musk said he expected both the rocket and Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first crewed mission to arrive in Florida at the company’s launch facilities within about 10 weeks. Within that time frame, he said testing on hardware should also be completed.
If this is the case, the ball would move to NASA’s court to review all of the company’s paperwork and procedures and sign off on a crewed mission. One source said it was possible this could be done in time to support a flight early in the spring of 2020—but no one is offering launch guarantees at this point.