SpaceX’s Crew Dragon gets tentative NASA target for first astronaut launch

Crew Dragon arrives at the International Space Station for the first time ever during its March 2019 DM-1 mission. (NASA)

New information from both NASA and the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirm that SpaceX is currently targeting – at least very tentatively so – Crew Dragon’s first launch with astronauts aboard no earlier than November 15th, 2019.

SpaceX is currently in the midst of a complex, high-stakes anomaly investigation after its flight-proven DM-1 Crew Dragon capsule suffered a catastrophic failure on April 20th. That investigation is nowhere near full closure due to the fact that the interests of NASA and the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) are equally interwoven into the work involved. Given the potential consequences of a similar failure occurring with astronauts (public or private) aboard, NASA is unlikely to accept anything less than a no-stone-left-unturned analysis and failure resolution, including any necessary design changes to Crew Dragon, no matter how far-reaching.

As’s Chris Gerbhardt notes, the Crew Dragon-related dates included in the NASA Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) document are extremely tentative. They’re really only there to serve as placeholders for longer-term International Space Station planning, already a necessarily uncertain endeavor. Nevertheless, NASA’s NET November 15th 2019 planning date for Crew Dragon DM-2 (the first crewed test flight) was likely okayed by SpaceX – if not provided outright by the company – before going into an official FPIP.

In other words, November 15th is probably a real target but should be treated as an absolutely-positively-no-earlier-than launch date for Crew Dragon’s first astronaut-laden mission to the ISS. Back in late March (after DM-1’s successfully completion but before the capsule’s ground failure), anonymous Russian space industry sources confirmed that NASA’s DM-2 planning date was July 25th, while also indicating that the space agency was already preparing for delays that could push DM-2 as late as November 2019.

Specifically, an anonymous Roscosmos source told Russian outlet TASS that “the [DM-2] launch of Crew Dragon is likely to be postponed to November”. Given that that delay was rumored – albeit quasi-officially – and reported on nearly a month before Crew Dragon capsule C201 catastrophically exploded during testing, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a November 2019 DM-2 planning date officially released by NASA more three months later.

Crew Dragon stumbles, but optimism remains

As is often said, things were going perfectly up to the point that they weren’t. Despite 2-3 months of NASA paperwork and review-related delays, SpaceX’s first flightworthy Crew Dragon performed flawlessly during orbital rendezvous, docking, departure, and reentry to the extent that NASA and SpaceX officials were joking on-webcast about their partial disbelief. NASA’s lengthy post-mission review effectively concluded as much, although there is always room for improvement.

Due to those aforementioned DM-1 delays (roughly early January to early March), DM-2’s Crew Dragon assembly and integration was delayed in turn to preserve access in case DM-1 revealed flaws or necessary changes. Things didn’t quite go as planned, but the delayed integration has turned out to be beneficial, preserving access to most of Dragon 2’s critical subsystems without requiring major disassembly before any anomaly-related changes are implemented.

A May 2019 NASA update indicated that SpaceX’s DM-2 Crew Dragon (likely the vehicle previously assigned to the subsequent USCV-1 mission) is in the late stages of assembly. Once the anomaly investigation is complete and the DM-2 spacecraft is updated with any necessary modifications, SpaceX will likely require an additional ~4 months of work to reach flight-readiness. (NASA)

Per a late-May update from CCP manager Kathy Lueders, SpaceX has effectively shifted its Crew Dragon hardware assignments over one to account for the loss of the DM-1 capsule, C201. The vehicle previously assigned to DM-2 has been reassigned to a critical in-flight abort (IFA) test, previously meant to use flight-proven C201. Per charts provided during Lueders’ presentation, SpaceX’s replacement DM-2 capsule (likely the capsule previously assigned to the following mission, Crew-1) is in a sort of holding pattern to allow for modifications that may be required after the DM-1 failure investigation concludes.

Per a previous December 2018 update from Lueders, SpaceX’s original DM-2 spacecraft (now assigned to IFA) was expected to be fully assembled, shipped to Pad 39A, and ready for launch by June 2019. Accounting for DM-1’s delays, that spacecraft could likely be ready for the abort test as early as July or August, which meshes with post-anomaly indications that IFA is now scheduled no earlier than fall (September 2019)

Backlit by Earth’s limb, Crew Dragon DM-1’s ISS arrival was captured by astronaut Anne McClain on March 3rd. (NASA/Anne McClain)

All things considered, a pragmatic analysis suggests that Crew Dragon‘s DM-2 launch will most likely happen no earlier than Q1 2020, although miracles (and nightmares) are certainly possible. For the time being, all that really matters to SpaceX is wrapping up the C201 failure investigation as quickly and accurately as possible. Only after the company has publicly announced the results of that investigation should any IFA or DM-2 launch dates be taken with anything less than a full shaker of salt.

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SpaceX’s Crew Dragon gets tentative NASA target for first astronaut launch
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