Staying true to a corporate philosophy that favors high-visibility flight tests, SpaceX plans to continue wringing out major parts of the company’s human-rated Dragon spaceship in a sequence of dramatic flights leading up to the capsule’s first crewed mission scheduled for 2017.
“We have a very aggressive and exciting year ahead of us, ” said Garrett Reisman, SpaceX’s director of crew operations and a former space shuttle astronaut.
If everything goes according to plan, SpaceX says it can send an unmanned version of the next-generation Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station by the end of 2016. An orbital test flight with two pilots will follow in early 2017 to cap a series of test milestones leading to NASA’s certification of the capsule to carry space station crews.
Development of the Dragon crew capsule — called the Crew Dragon by SpaceX — started several years ago. SpaceX won its first tranche of federal funding for the crew-capable spaceship in 2011.
NASA awarded SpaceX a contract worth up to $2.6 billion in September to complete work on the Crew Dragon capsule. The contract’s maximum value includes up to six operational missions to rotate space station crews.
Boeing is designing a competing spacecraft named the CST-100, and NASA awarded the aerospace contractor a .2 billion deal to finish develop its own commercial crew transporter.
But the competitors are taking different approaches to the job.
“We don’t want to be pushing on just the schedule because the most important thing is for them to develop their systems in a careful way, ” said Kathy Leuders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. “We need to give them enough time to deliver their system as safely as possible.”
SpaceX completed the first test of the Crew Dragon’s launch abort system May 6. The rocket thrusters would boost the spacecraft and its occupants away from a dangerous explosion during liftoff.
Boeing plans a similar pad abort test in February 2017, two months before the company targets the CST-100’s first mission to the space station without a crew. If the tests go well, Boeing’s two-person test flight will follow in July 2017 with a launch by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.
Boeing executives say the CST-100 team is ready to handle the rapid-fire flight sequence, which leaves little margin for delays.
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