Next year was supposed to be the year that manned launches returned to American soil. Unfortunately, it’s looking like we might have to wait until 2018, because SpaceX has just delayed its first manned flight.
The delay was revealed in a NASA blog post, which said SpaceX was aiming for a manned flight in May 2018. This would be preceded by an unmanned flight of the vehicle in November 2017. The company told TechCrunch it needed more time for “assessment and implementations” regarding the “designs, systems and processes”.
SpaceX is under contract with NASA to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the Commercial Crew Program, alongside Boeing. The latter is developing the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which has also been delayed from 2017 to 2018. NASA said Boeing was aiming for an unmanned test in June 2018, and a crewed flight in August 2018.
“To meet NASA’s requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station,” NASA said in the update. “After the uncrewed flight tests, both companies will execute a flight test with crew prior to being certified by NASA for crew rotation mission.”
SpaceX has been forced to delay many of its upcoming flights owing to the explosion of one of its rockets on September 1 during a launch pad test. Their first attempt at an unmanned flight since then won’t be taking place until January, while their upcoming heavy-lift rocket – the Falcon Heavy – has been delayed to next year at least.
But Crew Dragon is arguably their most anticipated flight, promising to return manned launches to American soil for the first time since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011. Currently, the US relies on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to get its astronauts to the ISS.
Dragon and Starliner will both be capable of taking four astronauts to space, which will mean that more astronauts can technically be housed on the station. Six is the maximum at the moment, as each Soyuz spacecraft can only carry three people, so this could be increased to seven from 2018 (one Soyuz, one SpaceX/Boeing spacecraft), although Russia may reduce the number of cosmonauts it has on the station to two.
The Commercial Crew Program has experienced several delays before, so hopefully this will be the last one. Private spaceflight has been one of the cornerstones of the current NASA Administration, so it would be good to see it come to fruition sooner rather than later.