HAWTHORNE, CALIFORNIA – NASA boss Jim Bridenstine said on Thursday that the first manned mission into orbit by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon would take place in the first quarter of next year, pending the satisfactory outcome of tests.
On a visit to the SpaceX headquarters, Bridenstine praised Elon Musk’s SpaceX for its “fail fast, then fix” approach to spacecraft design after a personal briefing on the company’s long-delayed Crew Dragon capsule — a display of unity amid a rare public spat between the two key space figures.
But he also emphasized NASA’s concern for astronaut safety. “We are not going to take any undue risk,” he said.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is paying commercial launch contractors SpaceX and Boeing Co. $6.8 billion to build rocket-and-capsule systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil for the first time since America’s space shuttle program ended in 2011.
Bridenstine’s visit to SpaceX headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne comes as SpaceX works to overcome key technical challenges on the Crew Dragon. SpaceX has so far never flown humans into orbit, only cargo.
Musk and Bridenstine said they were working together through SpaceX’s technical difficulties, including concerns over re-entry parachutes.
“It’s a pretty arduous engineering job to get the parachutes right,” Musk said, adding that ultimately Crew Dragon’s parachutes will be safer than those used in the Apollo era.
“Testing will be complete and hardware at the Cape (Canaveral) by the end of December,” he added.
While they provided little concrete details on their joint investigation into a launch pad explosion in April, Musk said incidents were inevitable during complex development processes and rigorous testing.
The visit follows a rare public spat over the last two weeks between Musk and the NASA chief, who bristled at Musk on Twitter for celebrating an unrelated milestone achieved on SpaceX’s deep-space Starship rocket while completion of the Crew Dragon project remained delayed.
Musk quickly shot back during a series of interviews, at one point citing a rival NASA moon rocket dubbed the Space Launch System that is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. He also told CNN “most of the work” left to complete on Crew Dragon was related to “a long series of safety reviews” by NASA.
Both the Boeing and SpaceX capsules have been beset by delays and testing mishaps that have prevented either company from achieving goals for manned orbital missions in 2019.
SpaceX successfully launched an unpiloted Crew Dragon in March to the International Space Station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.
Bridenstine told reporters on Thursday that a high-altitude abort test of a system designed to propel the Crew Dragon astronauts to safety in the event of an emergency on the way to orbit would happen in “short order,” though he did not provide a specific timeframe.
NASA and SpaceX have had a strained relationship at times in recent years. SpaceX’s rise to become a dominant launch services provider for satellites over the last decade has been fueled in part by NASA contracts and the agency’s transformative strategy to buy services from private companies rather than owning the technology itself.
The top executive for Boeing’s rival Starliner program, John Mulholland, told a conference on Wednesday that its own key test of an abort system that propels astronauts to safety during an emergency was slated for Nov. 4, while its unpiloted orbital test flight was set for Dec. 17.
Under that time frame, the first Starliner manned mission is all but certain to slip into 2020.
With no current means of flying astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil, NASA has been paying Russia about $80 million per ticket for rides to the space station.