Behnken and Hurley
NASA astronauts Bob Behnken (left) and Doug Hurley during a dress rehearsal Jan. 17 for their upcoming test flight to the ISS. NASA will decide in the coming weeks whether to extend that mission to provide additional manpower on the station. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — NASA will decide in the coming weeks whether to extend a crewed SpaceX test flight to the International Space Station, a move that could help alleviate a crew time crunch on the station.

A successful in-flight abort test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft Jan. 19 makes it increasingly likely that that the spacecraft will be ready for a crewed test flight, known as Demo-2, this spring. At a post-test news conference, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said it was “probable” that the flight will take place in the second quarter of this year.

On the Demo-2 flight, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly on the Crew Dragon to the ISS. That was originally designed as a short-term mission, on the order of a couple weeks, but NASA is leaving the door open to extending that mission by an unspecified amount.

“Do we want that first crew to be a short duration or do we want it to be a longer duration?” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the briefing immediately after Musk offered his estimate of when the mission would be ready to fly. If NASA decided to extend the Demo-2 mission, he said, the astronauts would need additional training for ISS operations, which would push back the launch.

The current plan, he said later, is to keep Demo-2 a short-duration mission. But extending the mission, he said, would ensure NASA can get “the maximum amount of capability” out of the station. “We’ll be able to maintain a larger presence of astronauts on the space station for longer periods of time.”

There are currently six people on the station, but with scheduled crew rotations and a previously planned reduction in Soyuz flights, there will only be three people — NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy and Russian cosmonauts Nikolai Tikhonov and Andrei Babkin — on the station starting in April. That will limit the time available for research and also restrict any spacewalks to urgent repairs.

Bridenstine specifically mentioned spacewalks in his comments at the press conference. “It’s always better to have more crew on board for those activities than less,” he said. “We want to make sure we give us the best chance of success.”

A decision on extending Demo-2, Bridenstine said, would come in the near future. “Those are decisions we’re going to be making in the coming weeks,” he said.

NASA previously exercised an option to extend the crewed flight test for the other commercial crew vehicle in development, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. The agency said last April that Crew Flight Test mission, with NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann and Boeing commercial astronaut Chris Ferguson on board, would be extended for up to six months. The exact flight duration, NASA said then, would be decided at a later date, but all three astronauts have been performing training for ISS operations alongside that for the Starliner test flight itself.

NASA didn’t originally consider an extension of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission for technical reasons. “When we made this agreement with Boeing at that time, the vehicle that SpaceX was going to fly for Demo-2 was not really capable of doing it,” Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said at an October briefing.

However, the destruction of the Crew Dragon spacecraft that flew the Demo-1 uncrewed mission in March 2019 during preparations for the in-flight abort test forced SpaceX to instead use the Crew Dragon being built for Demo-2 for the abort test. The Demo-2 mission, in turn, will use a Crew Dragon spacecraft originally constructed for the first post-certification, or operational, ISS mission.

“That changed the game,” Shireman said then about extending Demo-2. “That’s why it’s much more in the discussion than it was before.”

Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, said at the post-test briefing that the agency had been working with SpaceX over the last six to seven months so that the Demo-2 spacecraft could support an extended mission. “You always need to have options when you’re dealing with these types of missions,” she said.

Musk said the company would be ready if NASA decided to extend Demo-2. “From a SpaceX standpoint, we will make sure we’re ready to serve whatever needs NASA may have, so that whatever decision is made, we can support either,” he said.

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...