SpaceX’s first ‘especially dangerous’ test flight for commercial crew program still month away

SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced this weekend that the first “particularly dangerous” test flight of the commercial crew program is still a month away, suggesting a further delay in the project.

“About a month before the first test flight of the Dragon crew,” tweeted Musk on the Saturday of the demonstration flight – without people on board – which was last scheduled for January 17th.

Musk on Twitter did not address the cause of the apparent delay. SpaceX declined to comment on the story.

The Twitter update is coming, however, as the federal government’s shutdown is in the double-digit range. Approximately 16,700 NASA employees, or 96 percent of the workforce, are affected by the shutdown, which began on December 22 when President Donald Trump upheld his demand that Congress fund a border wall between the US and Mexico.

ON HOUSTONCHRONICLE.COM: Workers, parks, and NASA are shouldering the brunt of the shutdown

SpaceX launches are being conducted on NASA’s own launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. So delays due to government shutdowns are nothing new to the company. The shutdown in January 2018, for example, forced SpaceX to postpone the 12-second test fire of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which Musk hopes will one day take humans to Mars.

DELAYS: SpaceX cannot test its Falcon Heavy rocket due to government shutdown

But Musk’s tweet appears to represent yet another setback for the commercial crew program, which has struggled since SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to build utility vehicles that can transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

The program was launched to reduce the US’s reliance on Russia for transporting astronauts to the orbiting laboratory. NASA has relied on Russia for this service since the space shuttle program closed in 2011.

The two companies were originally scheduled to launch crewed test flights in 2018, but like many space-related programs, their flight plans have faltered.

SpaceX is now planning – apparently – to start a flight test without a crew in February and a flight test with a crew in June. Boeing’s changes are similar, with an unmanned flight test in March and a crewed flight test in August.

A NASA security panel released a report in October questioning both the companies’ schedules and construction work.

For example, it turned out that Boeing has not yet completed some key tests on the parachute systems, heat shield and other components of the spacecraft. It also turned out that SpaceX was struggling with the parachute system.

The company’s flight plans “involve a considerable risk and, given the number of technical problems that have yet to be solved, do not seem to be achievable,” according to the committee.

Also this weekend, Musk tweeted a confirmation that the upcoming start is “extremely intense”.

“Early flights are especially dangerous as there is a lot of new hardware,” he wrote.

Despite these delays, NASA has already announced the nine astronauts who will be the first to fly in Boeing and SpaceX vehicles.

The commercial crew program is on shaky ground because of this a NASA study of workplace culture, including drug useat both Boeing and SpaceX. It is not yet clear how this will affect flight plans.

Alex Stuckey writes about NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her at [email protected] or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey.

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