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Getting commercial crew flying, at last

Jim Bridenstine and Elon Musk appeared to see eye-to-eye on the importance of commercial crew during their meeting last week at SpaceX’s headquarters in California. (credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

In the end, they were all smiles.

On Thursday, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO and founder Elon Musk appeared before the media at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters. With a Crew Dragon spacecraft behind them, and NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, who will be the first to fly in that spacecraft, at their sides, the space agency leader and the space company executive said they were all on the same page, at last, about the priority of developing that spacecraft.

“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 at the briefing.

That declaration was necessary because, less than two weeks earlier, there were questions about whether both agreed that was the case. Just before Musk held an event at SpaceX’s test site near Brownsville, Texas, to show off progress on the company’s Starship vehicle, Bridenstine suggested SpaceX wasn’t sufficiently focused on Crew Dragon. “NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer,” he said in a statement tweeted a day before the Starship showcase. “It’s time to deliver.” (See “Starships are meant to fly,” The Space Review, September 30, 2019.)

That led to a backlash against NASA, with the company’s ardent fans arguing that SpaceX was singled out while Boeing also suffered delays in its commercial crew vehicle, CST-100 Starliner, and the agency’s own exploration programs, like SLS and Orion, has also been delayed. NASA officials, behind the scenes, noted that they had called out other programs in the past, including Bridenstine’s short-lived proposal in March to move the Orion being prepared for EM-1 (now Artemis-1) from SLS to a commercial vehicle.

Bridenstine, less than a week later, announced on Twitter that he had a “great phone call” with Musk and would visit him at SpaceX’s headquarters the following week. That meeting was actually in the works for some time, and Bridenstine used the trip to California to visit the Armstrong Flight Research Center as well as Northrop Grumman to review progress on another delayed big program, the James Webb Space Telescope.

The SpaceX meeting, by all accounts, went well. Photos of the event included the two talking and smiling, as well as signing a Commercial Crew banner. Bridenstine even took a spin in a Crew Dragon simulator, docking the spacecraft to the ISS. “Just so everybody knows, I nailed it,” Bridenstine said. “Twice.”

“He did nail it,” Musk interjected.

Musk said he assured NASA that commercial crew was a top priority. “Crew Dragon is absolutely the overwhelming priority” for SpaceX, he said. As at the Starship event nearly two weeks earlier, he said less than five percent of the company was working on that next-generation vehicle, with most of the rest of the company focused on both Dragon and Falcon.

That’s important, since there’s still a lot of work to do to get Crew Dragon ready to fly people. Six months ago, the Crew Dragon spacecraft that flew the uncrewed Demo-1 mission to the ISS, and which was being prepared for the in-flight abort test, exploded on a test stand just before a static-fire test of the capsule’s SuperDraco thrusters, setting back the program.

While SpaceX reported in July that it had found the most likely cause of the failure, a leaky valve, that investigation is still being wrapped up. “The static-fire anomaly investigation is almost complete,” said Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, during a panel session last week at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. While that investigation is still wrapping up, he added that “mitigations” to address issues uncovered during the investigation “have been identified and already incorporated into the vehicles.”

A potentially bigger concern, though, has been with the Crew Dragon parachute system. NASA disclosed at a congressional hearing in May that the parachutes had failed in one test the month before. Recently, Musk talked about a new “Mark 3” parachute being developed by Airborne Systems that will soon be tested.

That parachute, he said, features stronger lines and a changed stitching pattern, intended to incorporate stronger loads. “We’re going just full tilt on the Mark 3 parachutes,” Musk said. “People think parachutes look easy, but they are definitely not easy.”

Those changes, he said, are intended to make the parachutes safer, even though Musk said the existing Mark 2 parachutes were safe enough—an odd choice, given the schedule pressures the overall program has been under. “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.”

NASA supports SpaceX’s decision to move ahead with the Mark 3 parachute. Bridenstine suggested that the Mark 3 parachute could be certified for flight using a smaller number of tests than the Mark 2, provided the Mark 2’s performance is similar to that of the Mark 3. “We need to get with the Mark 3 now consistent, repeatable performance,” Bridenstine said.

If those parachute tests do go well, as does an in-flight abort test SpaceX plans to perform in late November or early December from Florida, the vehicle might be ready for the Demo-2 crewed test flight early next year. “If everything goes according to plan, it would be in the first quarter of next year,” Bridenstine said. But, he added, “usually things don’t go according to plan when it comes to these new development capabilities.”

That same timeframe was offered, at nearly the same time, for Boeing’s Starliner back at the ISPCS in New Mexico. 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, both said in a panel discussion that they expected to be able to fly Starliner’s crewed test flight, with two NASA astronauts and Boeing commercial astronaut Chris Ferguson on board, in the first quarter of 2020.

That schedule is dependent on the successful completion of two major tests, the dates for which Boeing announced at the conference. A pad abort test, where the Starliner leaps off a pad at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to simulate escaping a booster malfunctioning before or at liftoff, is scheduled for November 4. That will be followed by an uncrewed orbital flight test, with the Starliner flying to the ISS similar to SpaceX’s Demo-1 mission, launching on an Atlas 5 December 17.

Boeing had planned to carry out the Orbital Flight Test in the spring, but delayed it when it concluded they wouldn’t have enough time on the pad to make a launch attempt before yielding to another Atlas 5 launch of a military satellite. Mulholland said the company found “a few little final discoveries” with the spacecraft during final integration and testing which pushed back the launch, but that now they were confident the spacecraft was ready.

If at least one of the companies’ vehicle is ready to fly early next year, it will come as a relief to NASA. The agency’s access to Soyuz seats runs out in the fall of 2020, meaning that, in theory, NASA could lose access to the station if neither vehicle is ready. (Boeing’s crewed test flight can stay at the ISS for an extended period, serving as a crew rotation mission, and Kirk Shireman, NASA’s ISS program manager, said at a briefing in early October that the agency is in discussions with SpaceX about doing the same with Demo-2 if needed.)

But both Bridenstine and Ken Bowersox, NASA’s acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that discussions are beginning about acquiring one or more additional Soyuz seats as an insurance policy. “We need to make sure that we do not have a day where don’t have American astronauts on the International Space Station, so we will be continuing to work with Roscosmos,” Bridenstine said.

Bowersox, speaking at ISPCS, said specifically NASA is looking at one Soyuz seat for the fall of 2020, returning in the spring of 2021. Both, though, said that no agreement had been reached with Rocosmos yet, and any deal might require an extension of NASA’s existing waiver of nonproliferation sanctions against Russia, which expires at the end of 2020.

For now, any tension that might have existed between Bridenstine and Musk has eased, at least publicly. Bridenstine even praised Starship. “I want people to make no mistake, that NASA has an interest in seeing Starship be successful,” he said, noting that NASA has several agreements with SpaceX for technology development that could support that vehicle, like in-space refueling.

Bridenstine said he wants companies like SpaceX to be successful in more than just their work with NASA. But, he said, “to be clear, we want commercial crew to happen at the earliest possible point.” So those tensions between NASA and SpaceX, if they have really eased, may come back soon enough.

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