The unmanned test flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule that should have taken place this month has been postponed. The first test flight has been postponed to November. A manned test flight will not take place before April 2019.
According to NASA’s new schedule, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will make its first unmanned demonstration flight in November 2018, after which the spacecraft will make its first manned test flight in April 2019. It was previously planned that the Crew Dragon would conduct an unmanned test flight as early as this month and make a manned test flight later this year in December. The test flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has also been postponed until the end of this year.
No clear reason for the delay or postponement has been given by NASA or SpaceX. In principle, the unmanned test flights are not a necessary condition to approve the capsules for the transport of astronauts. However, Boeing and SpaceX want to conduct these test flights to ensure that, for example, the integrated rocket motors and the atmosphere entry systems function properly.
On the left the Crew Dragon capsule from SpaceX and next to it the Starliner from Boeing
For example, both capsules have an abort motor integrated as part of the launch escape system. This is basically a rocket engine that is ignited the moment the launch from the ground goes wrong or if there are problems returning to Earth. This engine of Boeing’s competing Starliner capsule encountered problems in an earlier test. That led to the Starliner not going up for an unmanned test flight until the end of this year and a manned flight to follow sometime in mid-2019.
Both Boeing’s Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner module fall under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which flies astronauts to the ISS in private space capsules. The goal is to arrive at a safe, reliable and inexpensive way to transport astronauts to and from the ISS. There is some rush to do so, as NASA now relies on Russian Soyuz capsules. There will be a shortage of this after 2019, as a result of which the possibility to reserve seats in Soyuz capsules for a fee will soon disappear.
The Crew Dragon is to take off with Falcon 9 rockets, while the Starliner is designed for United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket and its successor, the Vulcan rocket.