Tests near for cap­sules to carry up astro­nauts

NASA teams with SpaceX, Boe­ing

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - MAR­CIA DUNN

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA and SpaceX are now aim­ing for a March de­but of the first cap­sule from a pri­vate com­pany de­signed to fly astro­nauts to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

No one will be on board for the crew Dragon’s in­au­gu­ral test flight to the or­bit­ing out­post.

Of­fi­cials set March 2 as the lat­est launch date. If the demon­stra­tion goes well, two NASA astro­nauts will take a test flight in July aboard the SpaceX cap­sule.

It would be the first launch of U.S. astro­nauts into or­bit, from U.S. soil, since NASA’s shut­tle pro­gram ended in 2011. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump men­tioned the up­com­ing mile­stone in last week’s State of the Union ad­dress.

Boe­ing, mean­while, is shoot­ing for an April launch of its first Star­liner cap­sule with­out a crew. The first Star­liner flight with astro­nauts would be Au­gust at best.

NASA’s com­mer­cial crew pro­gram has been de­layed re­peat­edly over the years, forc­ing a lengthy, ex­pen­sive re­liance on Rus­sian rock­ets. Each seat on a Rus­sian Soyuz cap­sule has cost NASA as much as $82 mil­lion.

More time is still needed to com­plete test­ing, train­ing and safety re­views, ac­cord­ing to NASA.

Kathy Lued­ers, man­ager of NASA’s com­mer­cial crew

pro­gram, said the ini­tial launches with­out astro­nauts are “a great dry run for not only our hard­ware, but for our team to get ready for our crewed flight tests.”

NASA is pay­ing SpaceX and Boe­ing to pro­vide the cap­sules and fly astro­nauts to and from the space sta­tion, al­low­ing the space agency to fo­cus on de­vel­op­ing a new cap­sule, Orion, and rocket, Space Launch Sys­tem or SLS, for trans­port­ing astro­nauts to the moon and, even­tu­ally, Mars.

SpaceX has been de­liv­er­ing cargo to the space sta­tion since 2012, un­der con­tract to NASA. Northrop Grum­man is NASA’s other sta­tion sup­plier.

Blue Ori­gin is also de­vel­op­ing a crew cap­sule that might carry pas­sen­gers by year’s end. But that cap­sule is in­tended for brief up-and­down hops, not or­bital flights, by tourists. Vir­gin Ga­lac­tic also is pre­par­ing a space­ship for tourists.

Last week’s an­nounce­ment fell on the one-year an­niver­sary of SpaceX’s de­but of its Fal­con Heavy rocket, which shot chief ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk’s red Tesla con­vert­ible into space with a man­nequin, dubbed Star­man, at the wheel.

AP/MAR­CIA DUNN

SpaceX’s Dragon cap­sule (right) sits in a SpaceX han­gar in Cape Canaveral, Fla., in De­cem­ber.

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