This week, Boeing made a public splash by introducing a new blue space suit for astronauts to wear aboard their Starliner spacecraft. However, what the company didn’t consider when rolling out “Boeing Blue” was when the lighter, more modern-looking flight suits could be put into action with manned flights into orbit.
That’s because there’s still a lot of work to be done to integrate all of Starliner’s different systems, including qualifying for flights, ensuring their compatibility, and writing and testing software that will ensure smooth flight. And Boeing is not alone; its “commercial crew” competitor SpaceX also faces similar technical hurdles with the Dragon V2 spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket it will launch into space.
Boeing has set a “no sooner than” date of August 2018 for its first crewed test flight, and SpaceX is aiming for May 2018. But those dates seem optimistic. Ars spoke to a handful of sources familiar with the program for commercial crews this week, and they were all pessimistic about the public timelines the companies have for reaching the launch pad. According to this unofficial analysis, even a single manned test flight in 2018 by either company now seems unlikely as teams from both Boeing and SpaceX continue to work through key technical issues.
Space is really hard
There’s an old cliché in the aerospace industry that’s nevertheless completely true: space is hard. Only Russia, the United States and more recently China have ever put humans into orbit. Now two private companies funded by NASA are trying to do the same. The fact that no one else has done this yet speaks to the challenge.
Early in the decade, a skeptical Congress stymied the commercial crew program by underfunding it, causing initial delays from 2015 to 2017. Last year, for the first time, Congress provided more or less every penny NASA asked for its contracts with Boeing and SpaceX . In September, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin reported that delays beyond 2017 were largely due to technical issues. NASA, too, shared some of the blame for the unwieldy evaluation and assessment processes as Boeing and SpaceX developed their spacecraft, Martin said.
NASA, of course, desperately wants the private companies to succeed. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, the space agency has relied on Russia and its aging Soyuz family of rockets and spacecraft to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station. And in the meantime, Congress has grumbled about paying an ever-increasing price for Soyuz seats.
NASA currently has contracts with Russia through 2018 to get its astronauts to the station. However, a test flight delay in 2019 would necessarily push the first “operational” commercial crew flights to spring or summer 2019. So, earlier this month, NASA unveiled a clever plan that would allow it to buy additional Soyuz seats for 2019 while mitigating the threat of political backlash.
Officials within the ISS program, based in Houston, helped broker a deal for Boeing to acquire the “rights” to sell three Soyuz seats in 2019. Boeing received these rights from Russia’s Energia as compensation for the settlement of a lawsuit involving the Sea Launch joint venture. Essentially, if NASA tells the White House and Congress it has to buy extra seats for 2019 because of commercial crew delays, it will ask for money to buy them from Boeing, a US company, rather than Russia.
NASA has therefore bought a little more time for its commercial crew partners. As we move deeper into 2017, there are some clues that can help us gauge whether Boeing and SpaceX are making good progress. The main thing is the actual allocation of crews to the first missions.
The space agency previously designated four veterans as its commercial crew astronauts – Bob Behnken, Sunita Williams, Doug Hurley and Eric Boe – who have since familiarized themselves with both new vehicles. These four astronauts are unlikely to be assigned to either Boeing or SpaceX until crews are formally announced, not only for the initial two-person test flights, but for subsequent operational flights as well. So there would potentially be two two-person crews (one each for Boeing and SpaceX), as well as two larger crews, including astronauts flying to the station for a regular multi-month increment.
The timing of these announcements is critical, as they must occur at least 18 months before operational flights begin. This would give astronauts flying to the station on long-duration missions time to prepare for all of their work aboard the ISS. Ars understands that the naming of these crews will not take place until June or July of this year – probably later.
Both companies have problems not only with their spacecraft, but also with their rockets. The Starliner will launch on the highly reliable Atlas V rocket, but wind tunnel tests have shown some aeroacoustic issues when the Starliner is stacked on top of the Atlas V during launch. Boeing may need to conduct additional testing this year to demonstrate that it has moved beyond these issues.
It will be critical for SpaceX to monitor the company’s development of the Falcon 9 rocket. With two failures in 18 months, the company must prove to NASA that its booster is safe. The issue is complicated by the fact that SpaceX continues to work on a “final” version of its Falcon 9 rocket – Block 5 – which founder and CEO Elon Musk said will fly by the end of this year. The Block 5 variant of the Falcon 9 is being designed for optimal safety and easier return for possible reuse. It will also be the variant on which the manned Dragon spacecraft will eventually fly.
NASA will want to see several flights of this Block 5 version before astronauts can get on top of it. Among those flights will be an uncrewed test flight of the Dragon V2 spacecraft, which will likely dock at the space station. As part of the milestones for Dragon V2, SpaceX nominally plans to conduct this unmanned test flight in late 2017.
However, as it now seems unlikely that the Block 5 version of the Falcon 9 will make its maiden flight before the end of this year, the Dragon V2 test flight will almost certainly take place in 2018. to how overly optimistic the rest of SpaceX’s commercial crew goals remain.