Crew Dragon launch illustration
SpaceX plans to launch its Crew Dragon for the first time, but without a crew onboard, Jan. 7 from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — While a SpaceX commercial crew test flight might not launch on a date in early January previously announced NASA, both agency and company officials are optimistic the mission will still fly later in the month.

NASA announced Nov. 21 that the first of two test flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, also known as Dragon 2, was targeted for launch Jan. 7. That mission, known as Demo-1, will fly the spacecraft to the International Space Station but not carry any crew.

Shortly thereafter, though, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine cautioned that the launch date had yet to be finalized. “There are reviews in [December] to decide configuration, waivers and date,” he tweeted Nov. 24. “[International] partners, the range, and ISS availability could also impact schedule.” The agency announced the date despite that uncertainty in order to set deadlines for media accreditation, particularly for international media who have a Dec. 7 deadline to apply to cover the launch.

According to later media reports, Bridenstine cast doubt about whether the mission would be ready to launch in January. He told attendees of a media roundtable Nov. 29 at NASA Headquarters that he felt there was a “very low probability” the Demo-1 mission would launch in January, citing issues with several aspects of the spacecraft, including its parachute systems.

However, both NASA and SpaceX officials have said in recent days they remain optimistic that the mission can launch in January, although likely later than the Jan. 7 date announced in November.

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in a Dec. 3 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center prior to the launch of a cargo version of the Dragon spacecraft that the Demo-1 spacecraft was undergoing final integration and testing in Florida ahead of the launch.

“What I could see is a couple days [delay] because of traffic” of visiting vehicles at the ISS, he said of the launch schedule for Demo-1. “Our target is, at this point in time, mid-January, and we’re pushing as hard and as diligently as we can for this particular launch.”

He added, though, that the company wasn’t schedule-driven for this mission. “It’s way more important for us to get Dragon 2 safely up there and make sure that the mission is successful than anything else in terms of schedule and timeline,” he said.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said Dec. 6 he’s also expecting the Demo-1 mission to take place in January, although near the end of the month rather than the beginning. “We’re getting ready, potentially, for an uncrewed Dragon flight some time early next year, probably towards the end of January, and that’s moving forward pretty well,” he said at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee at NASA Headquarters.

“We’ve got a lot of pretty intense reviews over the next couple of weeks to make sure we’re really ready to go fly that flight, but that’s moving forward,” he added.

Later in the committee meeting, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, said the Jan. 7 date came from reviews of the work remaining to prepare the spacecraft for launch, along with availability of the launch range and the station.

“We had an agreement between us and SpaceX about the work that needed to be done” before the Demo-1 launch, he said. “We laid that out and it looked like that we could make a Jan. 7 date. We looked at the space station and they had the window, the range had a date, so we grabbed it.”

He added that being able to launch on Jan. 7 depends on everything going as planned. “Life usually happens, so there’s challenges to that date even as we speak,” he said, not elaborating on the specific issues that could delay the launch. “We’ll see how it goes.”

He noted a wide range of testing going on involving the Dragon hardware and software, as well as the Merlin engine that powers the Falcon 9 that launches this year. He didn’t discuss specific problems with the spacecraft’s parachutes, but said they have a goal of completing five qualification tests of the parachute system by the end of the year.

“We’re close, and we have a chance” of making the Jan. 7 date, he said during the meeting. “But, like I said, there’s lot of challenges, a lot of work between now and then.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...