NASA and SpaceX agree commercial crew development is the “highest priority”

Space

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk eased two weeks of tension between them Oct. 10, saying they were on the same page regarding development of commercial crew systems.

Bridenstine toured SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, and told media afterwards that development of vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station, including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, was his highest priority.

“We have, right now, a lot under development. But I will also tell you, and Elon and I are in strong agreement on this, that the one thing we have under development that is of the highest priority is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said.

Less than two weeks earlier, Bridenstine appeared to question SpaceX’s commitment. In a Sept. 27 statement, a day before Musk provided an update on work on the company’s Starship next-generation launch system, Bridenstine noted commercial crew systems were years behind schedule.

“NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer,” he said then, comments agency insiders said reflected a perception that SpaceX was not focused sufficiently on getting Crew Dragon completed. “It’s time to deliver.”

Bridenstine, asked about those comments in Hawthorne, said they were based on a lack of cost and schedule “realism” in a number of agency programs, not just commercial crew. “What we’re trying to do is to get back to a day where we have realistic cost and schedule,” he said. “I was signaling — and I haven’t done it just to SpaceX but to all of our contractors — that we need more realism built into the development timelines.”

Musk said that many of the Crew Dragon delays could be linked to funding shortfalls in the early years of the program, although in recent years Congress has fully funded NASA’s requests. “Crew Dragon is absolutely the overwhelming priority” at SpaceX, he said, with only about 5% of the company working on Starship.

Both argued that Crew Dragon was approaching the home stretch towards a crewed test flight known as Demo-2. Musk previously said that an in-flight abort test of the vehicle, where the Crew Dragon uses its abort thrusters to escape a Falcon 9 rocket in flight, is scheduled for late November or early December. Testing of the overall system may be completed, and hardware for Demo-2 delivered to Florida, by the end of the year.

“If everything goes according to plan, it would be in the first quarter of next year,” Bridenstine said of Demo-2. However, he added, “there are still things we can learn, or could learn, that could be challenging that we have to resolve.”

At a separate presentation Oct. 10 at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here, both Steve Stich, deputy manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, and John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing’s space exploration division, said they were also targeting a crewed test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner in the first quarter of 2020. That schedule depends on the success of a pad abort test of the vehicle scheduled for Nov. 4 and an uncrewed orbital flight test currently set for launch Dec. 17.

Besides both the in-flight abort test and a static-fire test of Crew Dragon’s abort thrusters — a test that, in April, destroyed a Crew Dragon capsule being prepared for that in-flight abort — there is still extensive testing of the parachutes for Crew Dragon. SpaceX recently shifted to a new parachute design, called the Mark 3, that Musk said is far safer than the Mark 2 parachutes that had been tested for Crew Dragon.

“We think the Mark 2 parachutes are safe, but the Mark 3 parachutes are possibly 10 times safer,” Musk said. “The Mark 3 parachutes are, in my opinion, the best parachutes ever, by a lot.” The Mark 3 parachutes, he said, incorporate much stronger lines and changes in stitching patterns to accommodate higher loads.

Bridenstine said that both SpaceX and NASA are “committed as a team” to the new Mark 3 design. “We need to get with the Mark 3 now consistent, repeatable performance,” he said. That includes as many as 10 drop tests through the end of the year to compare its performance to the Mark 2. If the two are comparable, fewer drop tests may be required to qualify the Mark 3 for Crew Dragon.

“We’re going just full tilt on the Mark 3 parachutes,” Musk said. “People think parachutes look easy, but they are definitely not easy.”

While Bridenstine was previously critical of SpaceX’s emphasis on Starship, he said in Hawthorne that he hoped the company was successful with it. “I want people to make no mistake, that NASA has an interest in seeing Starship be successful,” he said, noting partnerships between the company and agency on technologies for use on Starship.

“To be clear, we want commercial crew to happen at the earliest possible point,” he emphasized. “But we also want all of our commercial partners, all of our partners, to be successful in going further and doing more.”

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