The test flights and missions aboard Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, slated for as early as April 2019, will "begin a new era in America spaceflight", the US space agency said. The Starliner and Crew Dragon will launch American astronauts on American-made spacecraft from American soil to the International Space Station for the first time since NASA retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011.
The announcement comes two days before NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is set to reveal which NASA astronauts will fly on the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon test flights. For many months, NASA's Commercial Crew Program office has been listing the launch dates for both companies' uncrewed test flights as taking place this month, August 2018. Boeing's CST-100 Starliner will launch on its first uncrewed flight test on the ULA Atlas V rocket. The goal: ensure NASA astronauts can access the International Space Station and end United States reliance on Russia's increasingly expensive Soyuz spaceships to get there. Starliner and Crew Dragon will dock and undock autonomously to the space station before returning the crew safely home. "If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the USA policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met", the report argued.
Boeing has also rearranged its test program, pushing back a pad abort test that was scheduled for this summer, before both the uncrewed and crewed test flights, to spring 2019, after the uncrewed flight.
In March, SpaceX performed two parachute tests, the company's 14th and 15th overall parachute test supporting Crew Dragon development in the Mojave Desert in Southern California.
A report issued last month by a U.S. government auditor said Boeing and SpaceX are unlikely to be able to send astronauts to the ISS next year, resulting in a possible gap in the USA presence on the spacecraft.
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Each company must launch an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight prior to certification by NASA for the vehicles to begin operational flights. Each will be manned by at least a flight commander and a pilot.
In July, SpaceX shipped its Crew Dragon spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for processing in preparation for Demo-1, and completed its first high-altitude balloon drop test - and 17th overall parachute system test - in the Mojave Desert from ~50,000 feet. DM-2, Crew Dragon's first manned demonstration flight, is still now scheduled for December 2018, as reported by the Inquisitr.
"The crew right now is actually working on integrated crew simulations on the flight systems", said Lueders.
"In similar fashion, NASA is empowering private industry to gain solid footing in low-Earth orbit, which will allow NASA to explore new frontiers in deep space".