NASA Optimistic SpaceX, Boeing Will Send American Astronauts Aloft In 2020 – Forbes

SpaceX founder Elon Musk (right) shakes hands with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

It’s been a long time since American astronauts flew from American soil. Since 2011, NASA has used Russian spacecraft to send Americans up to space.

Next year may finally be the year that everything changes.

Back in 2014, both SpaceX and Boeing received multibillion dollar contracts from the agency to develop commercial crew spacecraft. NASA hoped, at the time, that the vehicles would be ready to go in 2017. But programmatic and funding issues have pushed back that timeline again and again.

Yet 2019 showed some strong progress from the two companies, and NASA is optimistic astronaut test flights could go early next year. SpaceX did send an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the International Space Station on a successful test flight, and Boeing’s Starliner is expected to do the same on Dec. 20 if the schedule holds. There still are other tests the companies must pass to make their spacecraft safe for humans, but seeing an uncrewed spacecraft make it to space safely is a large moral boost, as well as a technological boost.

If Starliner’s schedule pushes any later, it could bump into the Christmas holidays. Kenny Todd, manager of ISS operations and integration at NASA, declined Dec. 3 to say if the agency would wait after the holidays to get the mission off the ground.

“Right now we’re just working with the commercial crew program and really trying to understand what their launch schedule and what their opportunities look like relative to their vehicle processing,” he said in a livestreamed press conference. “We’re going to be ready for them.”

Notably, one of SpaceX’s key milestones for human flight recently slipped into next year. NASA recently announced that an in-flight abort test will happen no earlier than Jan. 4, which will see the Crew Dragon blast away from its Falcon 9 rocket shortly after launch in Florida.

NASA hasn’t purchased many more seats from Russia, which means that American flights in early 2020 will slow down. For now, it looks like the International Space Station will halve its crew from six people to three, around the February timeframe. Fewer people in space means less time for experiments, since space station maintenance comes first. NASA’s Office of the Inspector General recently released a report warning that this situation could persist well into 2020 due to programmatic issues Boeing released a statement days later protesting some of the findings.

Fewer people in space also means less time for spacewalks. In the same Dec. 3 press conference, Todd described the tight schedule situation facing NASA as the agency grapples with needed maintenance to the power system on the ISS (which takes two spacewalks) and their desire to repair an ailing experiment on the complex, known as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (which will take one last spacewalk in a set of four).

NASA doesn’t like to send people out on spacewalks when the space station crew is only three people, since it takes a minimum of three people to do a spacewalk — two outside, and one assisting from inside. So the agency is looking at trying to fit in these spacewalks in January, if possible, Todd said.

While there are uncertainties about the commercial crew timeline and possible effects on space station operations, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has expressed optimism with the progress of Boeing and SpaceX in delivering operational commercial crew vehicles in 2020.

“I think we’re getting close. I think it’s going to happen in the first part of next year,” he said Dec. 5, according to SpaceNews. But he added that due to “unknown unknowns”, he hesitated to give an exact date because the results of the tests could mean that NASA pushes back the flights again to ensure safety.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk (right) shakes hands with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk (ideal) shakes hands with NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine close to a clean up … [+] home that contains SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

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It’s been a extensive time due to the fact American astronauts flew from American soil. Considering the fact that 2011, NASA has employed Russian spacecraft to send out Us citizens up to area.

Following yr may last but not least be the yr that every thing improvements.

Back in 2014, the two SpaceX and Boeing acquired multibillion greenback contracts from the company to produce business crew spacecraft. NASA hoped, at the time, that the motor vehicles would be prepared to go in 2017. But programmatic and funding issues have pushed back that timeline again and yet again.

Still 2019 confirmed some sturdy development from the two firms, and NASA is optimistic astronaut examination flights could go early up coming yr. SpaceX did deliver an uncrewed Crew Dragon to the Intercontinental Space Station on a profitable exam flight, and Boeing’s Starliner is anticipated to do the same on Dec. 20 if the agenda retains. There nevertheless are other checks the firms need to pass to make their spacecraft safe and sound for individuals, but seeing an uncrewed spacecraft make it to area securely is a big moral improve, as very well as a technological strengthen.

If Starliner’s program pushes any afterwards, it could bump into the Xmas vacations. Kenny Todd, supervisor of ISS functions and integration at NASA, declined Dec. 3 to say if the agency would wait around following the holidays to get the mission off the ground.

A SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft arrives at the International Space Station on Dec. 8.

A SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft comes at the Worldwide House Station on Dec. 8.

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“Right now we’re just performing with the business crew plan and seriously seeking to have an understanding of what their start agenda and what their options search like relative to their motor vehicle processing,” he reported in a livestreamed push meeting. “We’re heading to be all set for them.”

Notably, one particular of SpaceX’s crucial milestones for human flight just lately slipped into following year. NASA not long ago announced that an in-flight abort take a look at will come about no earlier than Jan. 4, which will see the Crew Dragon blast away from its Falcon nine rocket soon right after launch in Florida.

NASA has not obtained quite a few far more seats from Russia, which means that American flights in early 2020 will sluggish down. For now, it looks like the Worldwide Place Station will halve its crew from six folks to three, close to the February timeframe. Much less persons in area means a lot less time for experiments, considering the fact that area station routine maintenance will come initial. NASA’s Workplace of the Inspector General lately produced a report warning that this predicament could persist effectively into 2020 because of to programmatic challenges Boeing produced a assertion times later protesting some of the conclusions.

Fewer men and women in space also implies less time for spacewalks. In the very same Dec. three press conference, Todd explained the restricted routine predicament going through NASA as the agency grapples with essential routine maintenance to the electricity method on the ISS (which normally takes two spacewalks) and their motivation to repair an ailing experiment on the intricate, acknowledged as the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (which will acquire just one last spacewalk in a set of 4).

Astronauts Luca Parmitano (lower right) and Andrew Morgan on a spacewalk.

Astronauts Luca Parmitano (lower correct) and Andrew Morgan execute repairs to the Alpha Magnetic … [+] Spectrometer on the International Space Station in late 2019.

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NASA doesn’t like to mail persons out on spacewalks when the place station crew is only a few folks, considering that it requires a minimum amount of a few persons to do a spacewalk — two outside, and 1 helping from inside of. So the company is searching at making an attempt to healthy in these spacewalks in January, if possible, Todd mentioned.

Whilst there are uncertainties about the professional crew timeline and probable outcomes on room station operations, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has expressed optimism with the development of Boeing and SpaceX in offering operational professional crew motor vehicles in 2020.

“I feel we’re finding shut. I imagine it’s heading to materialize in the initially aspect of future yr,” he said Dec. five, according to SpaceNews. But he additional that because of to “unknown unknowns”, he hesitated to give an correct day because the final results of the checks could signify that NASA pushes back the flights all over again to be certain protection.

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