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First test flight of Dragon manned capsule delayed ten days

In order to avoid a conflict at ISS with the Dragon cargo freighter that just docked there, SpaceX has now delayed the unmanned test launch of its first Dragon manned capsule by ten days, to no earlier than January 17, 2019.

The article at the link is mostly focused on describing the experiments and cargo that the cargo freighter just brought to ISS, but it includes these scheduling details involving the unmanned test flight:

The cargo Dragon is the only vehicle currently capable of returning experiments from the International Space Station and is in relatively high demand. Thus, the worms will either return aboard this CRS-16 Dragon or wait until spring when the CRS-17 Dragon departs the orbital outpost. Regardless, once the newly delivered science experiments and cargo are removed from Dragon, the International Space Station crew will pack the craft full of return cargo before closing Dragon’s hatch and releasing it from the Station in mid-January 2019 for return to Earth.

Presently, CRS-16’s unberth and landing date is set for 13 January 2019, which at the time of the mission’s launch set up a potential overlap between CRS-16 and SpaceX’s Demonstration Mission -1 (DM-1) for the Commercial Crew Program.

At the time of CRS-16’s launch, the uncrewed DM-1 test flight had been targeting a No Earlier Than (NET) launch date of 7 January 2019 from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, with a docking to the International Space Station to follow on 10 January. That NET 7 January launch date officially slipped on Friday to NET 17 January.

I once again want to emphasize that the only thing that I see that might delay this launch is NASA’s effort to slow it down.

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  • Richard Malcolm

    I was actually most struck by the closing paragraphs of the article:

    “Something that is now abundantly clear from both SpaceX and NASA is that DM-1 is still very much targeting a launch in January 2019, a date that had been thrown into wild disarray and speculation with comments from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine that January was “unfeasible” and that the mission would “definitely launch in the first half of the year” – statements the raise questions as to why the Administrator would seemingly make such incorrect statements to the public.

    “The Administrator’s comments painted a much more dire image of DM-1’s status than is now understood to be reality – something dispelled by SpaceX’s comments, NASA presentations to NAC on 6 December which revealed that the DM-1 Dragon will be completely ready for flight prior to the end-of-year holidays, repeated comments from Mr. Gerstenmaier of NASA of a January launch target, and NASA’s Commercial Crew Program itself.”

    NSF is typically good at keeping the editorializing out of its coverage, but this passage looks for all the world like a shot at Bridenstine. And it is hard to think of Chris G. engaging in this if some of his sources at NASA hadn’t initiated such criticism, off the record, in the first place.

    Whatever it is, I would hate to speculate as to why Bridenstine was not on the same page as everyone else. But it certainly does suggest there are elements at work keen to delay the Crew Dragon flights, and perhaps not all of them are on the Hill.

  • geoffc

    I think there is a fundamental problem unveiled by this scheduling issue.

    The current processes are poorly handled. There are currently 6 vehicles at the station. There are 6 crew. There are two open ports (Technically one, since still waiting on IDA-3 for PMA-3 but whatever) and yet there is not enough ground based and space based manpower to handle a 7th vehicle.

    (all 6 on station are basically static, it is the loading/unloading that always will be manpower intensive, I get that).

    But the inability to have vehicles come and go in close succession being a problem is really a systemtic issue.

    They have been doing this for 20 years. (Russians longer before that). They need to automate and reduce human time needed for all these operations.

    And with 4 new vehicles (Cygnus, Dragon Cargo, Dragon Crew, CST-100) that was the time to accomplish that, and yet, again, here we are.

  • Kirk

    Richard, Yes, the wording is striking. Unfortunately, I think the NSF article was mistaken to describe the Administrator’s comments as “incorrect” and “more dire … than is now understood to be reality”.

    His comments (see NASA program to launch astronauts to space station facing delays but 2019 still on target [USA Today, 2018-11-29]) certainly are at odds to what we are hearing from SpaceX and the Commercial Crew Program, but they are in line with (and seem to be echoing) the statements made during the Q4 ASAP public meeting, namely that unmodeled and unexplained anomalies observed during SpaceX parachute deployments (both during Dragon 2 drop tests and Dragon 1 operation) need to be understood and any required changes be made before DM-1 is flown so that the uncrewed mission test flies the same parachute system which will fly with crew on DM-2.

    An NSF contributor with sources in SpaceX says that the anomalies are minor and ASAP is making too big a deal of it, but I am in no position to judge. So far the anomalies have not caused parachute failure (barring one unsubstantiated claim on Reddit that, during SpaceX’s last drop test, there was a complete parachute failure leading to the loss of their drop test article — I doubt the veracity of that claim, but neither SpaceX nor NASA have refuted it).

    The Commercial Crew Program says that the January launch date is dependent on several high level reviews to be conducted this month. Perhaps they will issue whatever waivers are necessary and the flight will finally go ahead as scheduled, but I believe that the Administrator (who has recently spoken of how he has been studying the history of the safety culture at NASA and how it has contributed to earlier disasters where problems (o-ring erosion and foam shedding) were repeatedly observed prior to fatal incidents) is signalling that there is a strong chance that the launch will be delayed a few more months.

  • Kirk: I have not been impressed with Bridenstine, If your analysis is correct, it appears he has been captured by the bureaucracy that is threatened by SpaceX and has been working for five years to block or delay the commercial manned capsules.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “it appears [Bridenstine] has been captured by the bureaucracy that is threatened by SpaceX and has been working for five years to block or delay the commercial manned capsules.

    I think that it depends upon whether he has placed the same emphasis for safety on the Orion-SLS program. This can be difficult to determine, since the first manned launch seems to keep slipping year for year (a bad sign in any project), so problems may not be showing up on the punch list the same as they are for Boeing and SpaceX.

    On the other hand, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) should be keeping a lookout for safety problems on Orion, SLS, and other NASA programs:

    In discussing NASA’s deep space proposals, including its Deep Space Gateway idea of a Moon-orbiting space station, ASAP as usual sees only one problem: not enough money

    So I guess we have to wonder whether NASA’s ASAP safety panel is fair or is part of the bureaucracy that is threatened by NewSpace companies that do things better, faster, cheaper, and smarter.

    I noticed that a year ago, ASAP was concerned about the COPV, but now that this seems to be solved they have moved on to a new concern.

  • Kirk

    A recent Gwynne Shotwell radio interview aired on Marketplace yesterday: At SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell’s job is to solve the problems that others can’t [14:15 audio; limited transcript]

    While justifying her prediction that they will be flying people to and from Mars in ten years, she made some passing remarks on the DM-1 schedule: “Ten years is an eternity. We’ve only been in business for sixteen. And what have we done in sixteen years? We’ve flown sixty-five times; flew a Falcon Heavy; sixteen missions to the International Space Station; developed a crew capsule that we’re about ready to fly here; we’ll have a dry dress rehearsal right before Christmas, should fly it a couple weeks later in January. All that in sixteen years. So ten years with this momentum, that’s very achievable.” [From 11:14] Earlier in the interview she expressed her confidence in DM-2 flying in mid-year 2019.

    So far the only pessimist statements I’ve head are from ASAP and the Administrator.

  • Kirk

    NASA just put out an invitation for up to 120 social media users / communicators to attend the DM-1 launch on January 17, with the warning that, “NASA has a series of reviews before the uncrewed test flight, and the outcome of these reviews, including the Flight Readiness Review, will ultimately determine the Demo-1 launch date.”

  • Edward

    Kirk noted that SpaceX’s President Shotwell said: “Ten years is an eternity. We’ve only been in business for sixteen. And what have we done in sixteen years?

    Hah! She missed the point by focusing on the events. What SpaceX has achieved in sixteen years is exactly what Peter Diamandis had hoped for when he set up his X-Prize in 1995. SpaceX has made access to space significantly more affordable and far more common than the direction that it had been moving over the past few decades.

    Because of SpaceX, companies, countries, universities, and even space enthusiasts are far more hopeful that they can accomplish in space what we all had expected to happen four decades ago. Falcons are actually beginning to achieve what the Space Shuttle was supposed to do for us. Several companies are working hard (others, mostly heritage companies, are hardly working) to match or surpass SpaceX’s current abilities, and if they do so then access to space can become even more common and affordable.

    What has SpaceX done in sixteen years? They changed everything! Right down to removing our dependence on government launchers. They changed our hopes and dreams for space exploration and utilization. Here is a vision that may actually be possible in the next three decades, as opposed to NASA’s idea to orbit the Moon and maybe send someone on a Mars flyby: (7 minutes: “ULA Innovation: CisLunar-1000”)

    The invention of the cubesat also has had a great affect on the size, weight, and cost of space exploration and utilization. SpaceX is not the only innovator, but they are doing a great amount to make the future come sooner rather than the later that it has taken, so far.

    SpaceX has solved several problems that others couldn’t.

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