Technical problems could delay the beginning of regular flights by SpaceX's Crew Dragon (left) and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner until at least late 2018. Credit: SpaceX artist's concept and Boeing

RENTON, Wash. — With official dates for commercial crew test flights looming, NASA officials have indicated a revised schedule, taking into account the status of vehicle development as well as International Space Station activities, will soon be released.

At a June 28 briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center regarding the scheduled June 29 launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said the agency was “close” to setting new date for uncrewed and crewed test flights by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“We’re evaluating exactly when opportunities might be and when they’ll be ready, but we’re not ready to set an official date at this point in time,” he said, referring to continuing discussions involving the space station program, the commercial crew program and the two companies. “We’re working to that. I think it’s close to when we’ll be able to do it.”

Official schedules, published early this year, call for both Boeing and SpaceX to do uncrewed test flights in August. Boeing is scheduled to perform a crewed test flight in November and SpaceX in December.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA's Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceX
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceX
A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceX

While NASA continues to state that these dates remain the official schedule, there is widespread skepticism in the space industry that the companies will be able to meet those dates, with an expectation that both companies will see slips of up to several months.

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said at the briefing that SpaceX was continuing to work to the August and December dates for the company’s two test flights. The Crew Dragon vehicle that will go on the uncrewed test flight is currently at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio for thermal vacuum tests. “Once it leaves Plum Brook, it’s going to come down to Cape Canaveral for final launch processing,” she said.

At a June 26 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee on commercial launch regulatory reform, Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX, offered a similar schedule, saying that the uncrewed test was planned for “later this summer,” followed by a crewed test flight in December.

However, Kelly Gareheime, associate general counsel for United Launch Alliance who also testified at the hearing, declined to state when the company would launch Boeing’s Starliner test flights. “We do have a timeframe that is not public at this time,” she said.

ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno has already indicated that the August launch will be delayed. Asked on Twitter when the next Atlas launch would take place, Bruno responded June 16, “AEHF in October from the Cape.” That suggested the Starliner test flight, which also uses an Atlas, will take place after that military satellite launch, a delay of at least two months.

AEHF in October from the Cape.

— Tory Bruno (@torybruno) June 16, 2018

Shireman said one factor for revising those dates is that the commercial crew test flights have to be worked into the schedule of other visiting vehicles for the station, including Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft and Japan’s HTV cargo spacecraft, as well as activities like spacewalks. “It has to fit in amongst all those things,” he said. “We just have to sit down all together, agree when the vehicles are going to be ready, when the certifications are ready and when it fits into the program plan. That’s the work still in front of us.”

Others at NASA, including the agency’s leader, have also been vague about when the commercial crew test flights will take place. “As far as the timelines go, I’m not going to change any timelines right here,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said June 27 at a Washington event held by Politico. “These are commercial providers who set their own timelines, and I’m not going to announce anything on their behalf.”

Bridenstine added he was “confident” in Boeing and SpaceX’s ability to safely fly astronauts, “and we are anxiously anticipating a rapid return of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

“Our partners, Boeing and SpaceX, are doing really, really good work,” said Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters, in a June 26 speech at the NewSpace 2018 conference here. He, too, shied away from giving specific dates for upcoming test flights.

“Very soon, within a few number of months, we’re going to have uncrewed test flights for both Boeing and SpaceX to the International Space Station,” he said, adding that flights with astronauts on board would happen soon. “We’re talking about months, and we’re not talking about years.”

At the June 28 press conference, Shireman acknowledged that NASA needed to better explain the process for scheduling commercial crew test flights. “Perhaps the thing we have not done as well about is really explaining all that’s involved in flying a flight to the space station,” he said. “We’re still in negotiations about what those dates will be. They’ll be forthcoming very soon.”

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...