The space agency’s priority is safe, reliable, and cost-effective travel to low Earth orbit and back (at least for now) for the crewed flight tests called Demo-1 by SpaceX and Orbital Flight Test by Boeing. Both companies have really leveled up their technology and safety measures with exhaustive tests that are bound to prove themselves once the spacecraft take off.
While NASA didn’t require uncrewed flight tests, both companies will be shooting them off to the ISS anyway, because you can never be too positive things won’t glitch once you’re 1,200 miles beyond Earth’s atmosphere. These test flights will provide invaluable data on how rockets, ground systems, operations, and the spacecraft themselves perform.
“This was above and beyond the NASA requirement in the contract,” said NASA Kennedy Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders. “Both partners said they really wanted to have an uncrewed flight test to make sure the integrated rockets, spacecraft and re-entry systems are all working as designed to be able to ensure the integrated system is functioning.”
NASA is currently assigning crew members to these test missions, and will work with both companies and the Eastern range to clear launch dates that will allow all science investigations and other operations on the ISS will not be interrupted. Public and private entities joining forces for these proto flights means the crewed test phase could be one of the most monumental leaps in human spaceflight since NASA’s Space Shuttle Program was retired in 2011.
“Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions for NASA remains the highest priority for SpaceX,” said Benji Reed, SpaceX Director of Crew Mission Management. “We look forward to launching Crew Dragon—designed to be one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built.”
SpaceX is aiming for its first Crew Dragon demo mission, or Demo-1, to take off this November and Demo-2 to fly by next April, and plans to launch it on the back of one of its own Falcon 9 rockets from historic launch complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Boeing will launch its CST-100 Starliner on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Cape Canaveral Air Force Base, also in Florida.
Both spacecraft are currently undergoing hardware tests, with final processing ahead as launch dates hover closer. NASA will only put astronauts on board once uncrewed flight tests have made the return journey to Earth and spacecraft systems have been validated by data reviews. The crewed flight tests will mostly mirror the uncrewed missions, except a flight commander and pilot will be manning each mission once they are ready for a human crew. Success in these missions means that the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft could start regular servicing missions to the ISS.
“NASA is empowering private industry to gain solid footing in low-Earth orbit, which will allow NASA to explore new frontiers in deep space,” said Jon Cowart, acting deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program’s Mission Management and Integration office at the Kennedy Space Center.
Just wait until we blast over to Mars.