Although the first crewed flight of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft was supposed to take place either at the end of 2018 or early next year, Boeing won't be ready to fly the first passengers on its state-of-the-art "space taxi" until mid-2019.
A report issued last month by a USA government auditor said Boeing and SpaceX are unlikely to be able to send astronauts to the ISS next year, resulting in a possible gap in the U.S. presence on the spacecraft. NASA has had to rely on Russian Federation for taking astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.
The ISS was created to be resupplied with crews and cargo by the shuttle throughout its lifetime, however, so NASA needed to develop alternative systems.
Numerous team members leading the unique public-private partnership believe the agency is on the cusp of something life changing with its Commercial Crew Program.
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The SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is packed with science and hardware ready for return to Earth on Friday. The Obama Administration initiated a "commercial crew" program similar to commercial cargo with the goal of having two systems in operation by 2015, a four-year gap in the US ability to launch people into space. Crew for Boeing's Crew Flight Test and SpaceX's Demo-2 flights will each include at least a flight commander and pilot aboard to test out the systems. Boeing won't launch its passenger spacecraft Starliner until "late 2018/early 2019". ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
In February, SpaceX blasted Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster into space from a Falcon Heavy rocket. Initially Congress did not provide as much money as NASA requested because of skepticism that the program would succeed. Like many spaceflight programs, development has been slow-going, with milestones regularly delayed.
If those uncrewed missions go well, Boeing and SpaceX will each follow with two crewed flights in 2019.
Among the options being considered by NASA is to use the crewed flight test as a crew rotation flight by adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay from two weeks to as long as six months. L-R: Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), John Mulholland (Boeing), Hans Koenigsmann (SpaceX), Cristina Chaplain (GAO), Pat Sanders (ASAP).
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It has been widely expected that those dates would slip, however.
"I'm excited to be part of the future of space travel", said Jon Cowart, acting deputy manager for the Commercial Crew Program's Mission Management and Integration office at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He made the announcement via telecon. Four NASA astronauts were selected in 2015 for training.
Friday's announcement will clarify who will fly on which spacecraft for the first human test flight and the first mission to the ISS.
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An uncrewed flight test was not a NASA requirement for certifying these systems for human spaceflight. That might mean two NASA astronauts plus Boeing's (Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut).