NASA has released tentative flight schedules for the first Commercial Crew Program missions of Boeing and SpaceX, aligning with recent suggestions that SpaceX’s schedule had slipped by several months. SpaceX’s first Commercial Crew mission, an uncrewed inaugural test of Dragon 2, has moved from late 2017 into early 2018, and is now targeting a launch no earlier than February.
Presenting at the 2017 ISS R&D Conference in D.C. earlier this week, chief Elon Musk reiterated that SpaceX was laser-focused on doing everything possible to ensure that Falcon 9 and Dragon 2 are as reliable and safe as can be. The company’s first crewed launch is subsequently planned for no earlier than June 2018, under the condition of a nominal demonstration flight of Dragon 2 four months prior. The choice to end development of propulsive landing of Dragon 2 will likely help the company more easily meet their schedule goals.
During the same talk, Musk took time to address what he considered a missed opportunity, SpaceX’s historic reuse of a Dragon spacecraft with the launch of NASA’s CRS-11 mission in June. In Musk’s opinion, SpaceX should have taken the opportunity to promote the genuinely unique and difficult accomplishment. He certainly isn’t wrong. To paraphrase, a private company conducted the first orbital reuse of a spacecraft since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011, and also became one of only three other orbital vehicles to have ever flown to orbit more than once.
Furthermore, SpaceX has suggested for quite some time that the company was planning on ending the manufacture of Dragon 1 pressure vessels in order to retool the assembly line and begin fully focusing on Dragon 2 manufacturing. Recent persistent rumors would seem to suggest that this may have already occurred, or is at least very close to occurring. SpaceX is likely to benefit considerably by exploiting the opportunity they have to refurbish and reuse orbital spacecraft, and it is likely that a majority of the nine cargo missions left in its first CRS contract will be conducted with refurbished Dragon capsules.
Of course, a great deal of the capsule must be replaced with new parts as a result of ocean landings, but Musk said he expects the next Dragon reuse and all future reuses to save the SpaceX nearly 50% of the cost of manufacturing an entirely new spacecraft. Musk admitted that the first refurbishment of Dragon likely ended up costing as much or more than a new vehicle, but this is to be expected for the first attempt to reuse any sort of space hardware that must survive some form of reentry heating and saltwater immersion.
Throughout the discussion, Elon Musk frequently and wholeheartedly praised NASA for enabling SpaceX to exist and to remain the agile aerospace company it wants to be while still working as a private partner of the agency. It is indeed exceptional that NASA’s CRS team has allowed SpaceX to upgrade and iterate Falcon 9 and Dragon hardware and procedures, with NASA expressing an uncharacteristic level of flexibility by permitting the many small additional risks the constant state of flux of SpaceX’s hardware has inevitably introduced.
Musk went so far as to state flat-out that Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s longstanding head of manned spaceflight, was “one of [his] favorite people in the world”. SpaceX and Musk’s consistent willingness to publicly thank and praise NASA has been an exception to the norm of the aerospace industry, and SpaceX and NASA will undoubtedly continue their strong relationship well into the future.