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 announced March 18 it plans to perform a crewed flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, with two NASA astronauts on board, as soon as the latter half of May.

In a media advisory, NASA said the launch of the Demo-2 mission was scheduled for no earlier than mid-to-late May on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. While that date is subject to change, the fact that NASA is starting the media accreditation process indicates some degree of confidence in that timeframe.

Before the announcement, there were signs that NASA would attempt a launch around that time. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said after a successful in-flight abort test in January that he believed the company would be ready to fly the mission in the second quarter of the year, or between April and June.

At a press conference before a cargo Dragon mission launched to the International Space Station March 6, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said the company at the time had two more parachute tests to perform that would test “corner cases” that put specific stresses on the parachute system. SpaceX had run into problems with past parachute designs, forcing the development of a new, stronger parachute system that started test last fall. “We have an enormously large test series behind us,” he said, calling it “very successful.”

During a panel discussion at the Satellite 2020 conference here March 10, Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said the company was “gunning for May” for the Demo-2 mission. She added, though, that both the company and NASA still had work to complete prior to the mission.

On the Demo-2 mission, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will fly the Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS, remaining there for at least several days before returning to Earth. While there have been discussions of extending the Demo-2 mission for weeks or months to address a shortfall in the station’s crew size, the announcement did not state how long NASA expected the mission to last.

Two other issues could affect planning for the mission. One of nine Merlin engines on a Falcon 9 that launched March 18 shut down prematurely, a problem that appeared to lead to the failure of the booster to land on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean. The problem did not prevent the payload, a set of 60 Starlink satellites, from reaching orbit.

Musk tweeted after the launch that a “thorough investigation” of the problem would take place before the next launch, suggesting delays that could have ripple effects on the company’s manifest. However, while the engine failure took place on a booster making its fifth flight, a record for the company, the Demo-2 mission will use a new Falcon 9 first stage.

Another issue is effects on NASA operations caused by the coronavirus pandemic. KSC, like the rest of the agency’s field centers, is requiring mandatory telework for all but mission-essential employees for the foreseeable future. At the Ames Research Center in California, even mission-essential personnel are barred from accessing the center, with only safety and security personnel present to comply with a “shelter in place” order by the local government.

“NASA is proactively monitoring the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation as it evolves,” the agency said in a media advisory about the upcoming launch. “The agency will continue to follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the agency’s chief health and medical officer and communicate any updates that may impact mission planning or media access, as they become available.”

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...