When it comes to accelerating human spaceflight, extending future test flights may turn out to be mission accomplished for NASA.
With its commercial partners on board, the space agency won’t be flying solo as it launches a SpaceX Crew Dragon and a Boeing CST-100 Starliner (coolest name ever) that could potentially stay out there far longer than anticipated. Boeing and SpaceX are both flying uncrewed test missions to the ISS later this year. NASA obviously has to certify those systems before human beings can set foot on the spacecraft. Post-certification is where it gets interesting, because crew members could be spending months in space—almost as long as a six-month full-duration mission.
“The work Boeing and SpaceX are doing is incredible. They are manufacturing spaceflight hardware, performing really complicated testing and proving their systems to make sure we get it right.” said NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders. “Getting it right is the most important thing.”
The Commercial Crew program aims to merge the public and private sectors to send astronauts to and from the ISS using safe and cost-effective methods that can be relied on. NASA and both companies are doing some hardcore testing on their spacecraft and launch vehicle hardware to prepare for these test missions that may go further.
Space suits, parachutes, and different crew recovery scenarios are also being tested, because you can never be sure enough of anything when you’re planning to blast a rocket through the atmosphere and be responsible for astronauts who spend months floating around in a nearly zero-G environment. The human body just wasn’t made for it.
This is all part of the contingency planning that allows for schedule adjustments to make sure NASA will have continued access to the ISS. The space agency has to consider every Plan B and Plan C possible, including safety and engineering measures, which it will then review before it rockets forward with training crews. Until the U.S. lands boots on the moon again, we still want to fly astronauts into space.
NASA has entered the commercial universe before. It has previously extended test flights, though several years ago it hadn’t yet ventured into such daring territory as turning them into full-duration missions or anything close. SpaceX carried NASA cargo on its demo flight to the ISS back in 2012. This was right after the NASA Space Shuttle Program ended and the agency needed to be positive that astronauts had the proper equipment as well as enough food and supplies to last the duration of the flight.
As for when (and whether) NASA will get us to the moon or anywhere else beyond the ISS anytime remotely soon, that question is still hanging in microgravity.