Elon Musk’s SpaceX sneaks ahead of Boeing in race to be first company to send astronauts into space
Nasa approached the companies to revive the US’s ability to fly to the International Space Station without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules
San Francisco/Dallas — Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies is set to beat Boeing in the battle to be the first company to ferry American astronauts to the International Space Station.
SpaceX plans to fly Demo-2, its first crewed test flight, in April 2019, while Boeing’s Crew Test Flight is now slated for mid-2019, according to a new schedule that Nasa released on Thursday. Both dates are later than the companies had been targeting.
Nasa awarded both companies a combined $6.8bn in September 2014 to revive the US’s ability to fly to the orbiting lab without buying seats on Russian Soyuz capsules — berths that cost about $80m apiece.
Nasa will announce which astronauts will fly with Boeing and SpaceX at an event on Friday at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will blast off atop United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, while SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft will travel on the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket.
In July, the Government Accountability Office warned that the companies were slipping on their schedules toward Nasa certification, with Boeing reaching that milestone in December 2019 and SpaceX a month later. It is possible neither company will be ready to fly astronauts until August 2020, the office said in its report.
The Commercial Crew programme carries some urgency because Nasa has no contingency plan to keep shuttling astronauts to and from the station after next year. The agency has procured its last five Soyuz seats to carry through to November 2019.
The process of obtaining additional slots on Soyuz can take as long as three years, the Government Accountability Office said. Moreover, tension between the US and Russia has escalated in recent months, which could complicate any negotiations.
"While we know there’s quite a bit of interest and focus on who will fly first, Nasa is more interested in both of them flying successfully," Stephanie Schierholz, a spokeswoman for the US space agency, said on Thursday.
Nasa has declined to say whether it has discussed additional Soyuz spots with Russian officials.
"Nasa is continuing to assess multiple scenarios to ensure continued US access to the International Space Station," Schierholz wrote in an e-mail earlier this week. "The agency is working closely with its commercial and international partners and is preparing for potential schedule adjustments normally experienced during spacecraft development."
In January, Nasa had said that Boeing would fly astronauts in November, followed by SpaceX in December. The companies originally targeted sending US astronauts to space in 2017.
Part of Boeing’s delay arose from a propellant leak in June during a launch-abort engine test in New Mexico. Those engines are designed to power up if the launch rocket suffers a mishap and would eject the Starliner crew capsule to a safe distance.
"We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action", including some design changes, Boeing said this week.
The companies see launching astronauts as a step towards a near-future in which space travel reaches beyond low-earth orbit. Proving that SpaceX can safely fly Nasa personnel would put Musk, the company’s CEO, closer to his ultimate goal of carrying human colonists to Mars.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has goals that are no less lofty. In speeches, he is fond of predicting that the first person to step foot on the Red Planet will get there in a Boeing rocket.