NASA Preparing for Crewed Spaceflights in 2019
NASA has announced that the first crewed spaceflights for SpaceX and Boeing are both set for 2019, with the first coming in January.
Despite missing several deadlines over the last few years, NASA is nearly ready to begin the next stage of space exploration. NASA recently confirmed that in 2019, it will oversee the crewed launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, followed later in the year by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner.
Others will follow in the years to come, including Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, and eventually NASA’s own Orion spacecraft. Once the crewed flights begin, there will still be several tests that will need to follow before the new spacecraft can officially enter a consistent rotation, but we should begin to see regular missions beginning at the end of next year if everything goes well. That’s good news for NASA, even if the next few years will see the space agency rely on commercial agencies.
The only way for the U.S. to reach space and the International Space Station right now is to go through Russia. Putting aside Roscosmos’ recent problems, the costs continue to rise. Each mission to shuttle astronauts to and from the ISS costs more than $80 mil, and that cost continues to rise. Using companies like SpaceX and Boeing won’t be free, but it will be significantly cheaper – enough so that the savings will help to launch NASA’s next plans, which include a lunar station.
SpaceX and Boeing have both been pushing for crewed flights for years, but delays have forced the date to move back several times. As recently as September, SpaceX was still planning on an uncrewed test launch in November with a crewed launch in March, but those dates slipped. SpaceX confirmed that it could still an uncrewed test by launch by December, but NASA requested it wait until January to “accommodate docking opportunities at the orbiting laboratory.”
Barring any new delays and assuming the uncrewed test is a success, the new date for a crewed launch from SpaceX is June 2019. When it launches it will carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. Once that major milestone is accomplished, SpaceX will carry out a few more tests and then it will begin looking into a steady schedule.
Along with SpaceX, Boeing is preparing its own launches of its Starliner spacecraft. An uncrewed flight is scheduled for March 2019, then in August, NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann will join Boeing’s missions operations director Chris Ferguson for a crewed flight.
While testing the spacecraft will be the headliner of the crewed flights, that test will also comprise several smaller tests, each vital to the continued progress of the space programs. Both Boeing and SpaceX have tested their rockets before, but this will be the first time they launch with humans on top, something that is always a little heart-stopping.
The crew SpaceX and Boeing crews will also wear all new spacesuits – each company has their own – featuring new communication sets, new shoes, new air filtration systems, etc., Once the spaceships are in orbit they will then need to go through a series of their own firsts, including first crewed docking, first crewed transfer of materials to the ISS, the first coordination between NASA and a commercial agency featuring crewed spaceships, and dozens more.
All of these smaller tests will have been at least partially worked through and tested prior to the crewed launches, but each one will still be a first in some way. The hope, of course, is that the flights will be more of a proving run than an ongoing experiment, but anything can happen in space, and it often does.
But for now, things are moving forward. And while it may not elicit the same sense of national pride as some of the previous inaugural flights of spacecraft launched from American soil, it will signify the next step in our exploration of space.