CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — Eclipsed by other space-related events, the story that the first launch of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program had slipped from 2015 to late 2017 has garnered little attention. NASA has selected three companies to send astronauts to the International Space Station. According to a report appearing in NASA Spaceflight, the first flight under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program won’t occur until November 2017, at the earliest. As much as the program has been touted as an effort to end U.S. reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, it appears that won’t be happening anytime soon.
Under the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap), NASA is attempting to have access to low-Earth orbit, primarily the International Space Station (ISS), handled by commercial companies. The three awardees that have been selected to accomplish this are Boeing’s CST-100, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser space plane, and Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Dragon spacecraft. Of the three, SpaceX can be viewed as the leader, as their offering has traveled to the ISS three times (in its unmanned configuration).
This could play into SpaceX’s favor, as NASA will likely be forced to select a single service provider in terms of crew transportation. SpaceX is unique among the competitors as it uses its own launch vehicle, the Falcon 9, to launch the Dragon. Both Boeing and Sierra Nevada have selected United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V to send their spacecraft to orbit.
According to NASA, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX are all accomplishing the milestones required under the CCiCap, with Boeing announcing recently that the adapter that would allow the CST-100 to be mated with ULA’s Atlas launch vehicle had completed a critical Preliminary Design Review.
As reported by NASA Spaceflight, all three companies are now working to launch their vehicles within the 2016 time frame. However, with the ongoing budget issues that the United States created by sequestration, there is a good possibility that these initial test flights are likely to slip. SpaceX has hinted that it might attempt its first test flight in 2015 using its own crew.
Once all of the commercial crew awardees complete their test flights, to be made using pilots within the companies themselves, NASA will then select a “winner.” Following afterwards will be the first official commercial crew mission, dubbed US Crew Vehicle -1 (USCV-1).
In November 2012, the Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) stated that USCV-1 would be flown on Nov. 30, 2016, with a docking with the ISS slated to occur in early December.
The March update to the FPIP saw the date of the USCV-1 mission slip by a year. NASA also appears to be hedging their bets on commercial crew and doing so in a manner that is contrary to what NASA’s current leadership has touted as being one of the benefits of Commercial Crew. The premise of commercial crew was that it would allow the U.S. years of access to ISS while lowering costs. ISS operations are only planned through 2020. Since commercial crew is now slated only to grant NASA access to ISS in the last 2 years of its operations, some have raised the question of whether commercial crew is worth the billions to be spent on its development.
Since 2011, NASA astronauts have been dependent upon the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for access to ISS. After USCV-1, the Soyuz will serve in a “backup” capacity for NASA access to ISS through USCV-4, currently slated for the first half of 2019. This was decided in case that the commercial crew concept never leaves the ground. US Crewed Vehicle flights are scheduled in six-month intervals.
It should be noted that this slip has not been finalized, as the FPIP is only a planning document, although it is highly likely that this slip will take place. As reported in the NASA Spaceflight article, NASA appears to have been aware of the likelihood of this slip since this past February, with Russian media reporting that NASA is working to secure Soyuz seats through the middle of 2017.
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