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9 Oct, 2019 20:45

‘Time to deliver’ Elon Musk? NASA nervous as spaceship delays threaten to cut off astronauts from ISS

‘Time to deliver’ Elon Musk? NASA nervous as spaceship delays threaten to cut off astronauts from ISS

With NASA’s contract with Russia about to run out without a replacement spaceship ready, the US space agency is leaning on SpaceX to hurry up and deliver. CEO Elon Musk says everything is on schedule – but is it?

Since the Space Shuttle program was scrapped in 2011, NASA has had no crewed spaceship capability, having to pay Roscosmos $80 million a seat to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX and Boeing were both contracted to develop a domestic alternative, but both the Crew Dragon and the Starliner have yet to get beyond the testing stage.

This is a problem for the US space agency, as the last contracted flight is scheduled for March 2020 launch and October return. After that, there is nothing – and it’s making NASA nervous.

“Full panic” is how one reporter described the mood at the US space agency, prompting Musk to respond on Twitter that the Crew Dragon should be deployed at Cape Canaveral and have “all testing done in about ten weeks.”

“We had to reallocate some resources to speed this up,” Musk added, going into a digression about new parachutes for the capsule before adding that all “hardware is at the Cape.” The launch would probably happen in late November or early December, he said.

Musk’s Cargo Dragon capsules have been resupplying the ISS since 2012, but making the leap to the crew version has proven challenging. The Crew Dragon looked promising all the way up to April, when it exploded during a test of the emergency response system’s abort engines. 

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In June, the Government Accountability Office published a report noting that both SpaceX and Boeing have “run into chronic delays” with their vehicles. Originally planned to have both vehicles certified safe for human spaceflight sometime in 2017, neither is now expected to be ready before the end of this year “at the earliest,” the GAO said.

While Musk has always talked a big game, he has not always managed to deliver – with the failed Solar City power project being but one example, along with the recent troubles with his flagship car company, Tesla. However, SpaceX has been a bright star in his corporate constellation, from successfully retrieving Falcon 9 rockets for reuse to announcing a ‘Starship’ vehicle as part of a Mars initiative last month.

The Starship business has rankled NASA, however, with Administrator Jim Bridenstine issuing a passive-aggressive statement on the eve of its unveiling that noted he expected “the same level of enthusiasm” for the taxpayer-funded projects.

“It’s time to deliver,” Bridenstine tweeted at Musk.

Meanwhile, Boeing is trying to speed things up as well, with the Starliner scheduled for a launch pad abort test in early November and an orbital test flight – without a crew – on December 17, according to reports. 

Even if all tests go perfectly, it is difficult to imagine either vehicle getting certified by NASA before March, with the agency insisting it will not compromise its safety standards for the sake of expediency. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking.

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