NASA Optimistic SpaceX, Boeing Will Send American Astronauts Aloft In 2020 – Forbes
It’s been a long time since American astronauts flew from American soil. Since 2011, NASA has used Russian spacecraft to send Americans up to space.
Next year may finally be the year that everything changes.
Back in 2014, both SpaceX and Boeing received multibillion dollar contracts from the agency to develop commercial crew spacecraft. NASA hoped, at the time, that the vehicles would be ready to go in 2017. But programmatic and funding issues have pushed back that timeline again and again.
Yet 2019 showed some strong progress from the two companies, and NASA is optimistic astronaut test flights could go early next year. SpaceX did send an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the International Space Station on a successful test flight, and Boeing’s Starliner is expected to do the same on Dec. 20 if the schedule holds. There still are other tests the companies must pass to make their spacecraft safe for humans, but seeing an uncrewed spacecraft make it to space safely is a large moral boost, as well as a technological boost.
If Starliner’s schedule pushes any later, it could bump into the Christmas holidays. Kenny Todd, manager of ISS operations and integration at NASA, declined Dec. 3 to say if the agency would wait after the holidays to get the mission off the ground.
“Right now we’re just working with the commercial crew program and really trying to understand what their launch schedule and what their opportunities look like relative to their vehicle processing,” he said in a livestreamed press conference. “We’re going to be ready for them.”
Notably, one of SpaceX’s key milestones for human flight recently slipped into next year. NASA recently announced that an in-flight abort test will happen no earlier than Jan. 4, which will see the Crew Dragon blast away from its Falcon 9 rocket shortly after launch in Florida.
NASA hasn’t purchased many more seats from Russia, which means that American flights in early 2020 will slow down. For now, it looks like the International Space Station will halve its crew from six people to three, around the February timeframe. Fewer people in space means less time for experiments, since space station maintenance comes first. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General recently released a report warning that this situation could persist well into 2020 due to programmatic issues; Boeing released a statement days later protesting some of the findings.
Fewer people in space also means less time for spacewalks. In the same Dec. 3 press conference, Todd described the tight schedule situation facing NASA as the agency grapples with needed maintenance to the power system on the ISS (which takes two spacewalks) and their desire to repair an ailing experiment on the complex, known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (which will take one last spacewalk in a set of four).
NASA doesn’t like to send people out on spacewalks when the space station crew is only three people, since it takes a minimum of three people to do a spacewalk — two outside, and one assisting from inside. So the agency is looking at trying to fit in these spacewalks in January, if possible, Todd said.
While there are uncertainties about the commercial crew timeline and possible effects on space station operations, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has expressed optimism with the progress of Boeing and SpaceX in delivering operational commercial crew vehicles in 2020.
“I think we’re getting close. I think it’s going to happen in the first part of next year,” he said Dec. 5, according to SpaceNews. But he added that due to “unknown unknowns”, he hesitated to give an exact date because the results of the tests could mean that NASA pushes back the flights again to ensure safety.
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