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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again

Elon Musk has now confirmed that the first unmanned test flight of the manned Dragon capsule has been delayed, and is now scheduled for sometime next month.

SpaceX is about a month away from launching its first commercial crew mission, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, tweeted this weekend. This will be a demonstration flight, without humans on board.

Officially, NASA had been holding to a January 17 launch date, but that has become untenable due to ongoing work to resolve technical issues, two sources said, as well as the partial government shutdown. More than 90 percent of the space agency’s employees are presently furloughed during the shutdown, which is affecting the agency’s ability to make final approvals for the launch. Some key government officials are continuing to work on the program without pay.

As far as I can tell, the “technical issues” are bureaucratic maneuvers by NASA designed solely to delay the launch. The article makes a big deal about the risks of this first test flight, as if none of its systems have ever flown before. That is absurd, While Dragon has been significantly modified, this can hardly be called a first flight for this capsule or rocket.

I repeat: The launch will occur on a SpaceX launchpad, run entirely by SpaceX employees. The only time NASA employees need get involved is during the docking procedures, and right now those employees at mission control and on ISS have been deemed essential and are working. If Trump ordered it, this mission could fly, even during this partial government shutdown.

Conscious Choice cover

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From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
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  • Dick Eagleson

    SpaceX, in effect, issued an implicit challenge to its opponents within NASA and in the Congress to do their worst when it rolled the D2 launch stack out to LC-39A a few days ago. Having previously hamstrung D2 for months, the worst new delay they are now able to arrange, it seems, is a bit over two more weeks.

  • Mike Borgelt

    NASA needs to be abolished. For the research functions start a new organisation called “Aerospace Technology Development Organisation”. About 6 people processing tenders from private industry for specific research and a small committee to receive unsolicited proposals and winnow them should do it.

  • Doug Ferguson

    It’s all about making sure that NASA’s darling, Boeing, crosses the finish line first.

  • Edward

    From the article: “The agency has pushed providers to develop a spaceflight system that has a 1-in-230, or lower, probability of ‘loss of mission.’

    Nice number. The Space Shuttle was not able to hold to that standard during its operational phase, but the article reads as though even the unmanned test flight must meet these high standards.

    ‘I think it is impossible to fly a new vehicle without learning something significant that you did not expect,’ Hale said. ‘Second flights are only slightly less risky. Mr. Musk is definitely well advised to lower expectations. Risk is inherent to this business and it would be foolish not to acknowledge it. But the biggest risk is staying home and not trying.’

    Unless NASA has genuine concerns about this test flight, then the delays are similar to staying home and not trying. The “1-in-230, or lower, probability of ‘loss of mission’” requirement is for loss of the mission, not loss of any one system. There are backup systems that need to be tested in flight, and only the loss of all backups of a system could be considered loss of mission. Despite a risk of loss for each system, because of the backups the overall risk for loss of mission is not great, but it exists.

    Columbia was lost because there was no backup for the damaged heat shield. Challenger was lost when the backup O-ring failed. Challenger’s penultimate mission was not lost, because after one engine cut out early, Challenger could still make a lower orbit than planned and could still complete its mission. Both lost Shuttles were due to the side-mount design of the STS.

    Then again, NASA has such confidence in Orion-SLS that it will fly a crew not just to the safety of the ISS but around the Moon on its first manned flight, the second flight for both the brand new spacecraft and brand new rocket.

    SpaceX has some advantages in that it has flown the Falcon 9 rocket dozens of times, and it has flown an earlier version of the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station 16 times.

    I worked for a company whose test policy was, “test like you fly, fly like you test.” To state it grammatically correct would be misleading: “test as you fly; fly as you test,” however in this case the DM1 flight is the penultimate test and the DM2 flight the final test with crew on board, two flight tests that happen as they fly.

  • Jason Hillyer

    Bureaucrats at NASA had better be more careful… Musk might just say ‘screw it’ and build a pad in New Zealand or somewhere where he doesn’t have to deal with their schemes.

  • Edward

    Jason Hillyer,
    Commercial space is not yet in a position where it can ignore NASA or the U.S. government. With luck, this will change in the next ten or twenty years, but for now, a majority of space funding comes from the U.S. (even New Zealand had to come to the U.S. to fund Electron), and a majority of U.S. funding still comes from government sources.

    As the article noted, NASA “remains SpaceX’s most important customer.” There remains the possibility that as SpaceX demonstrates its abilities, in the next few years, NASA will hire SpaceX to return people to the Moon’s surface and take them to Mars, continuing its role as an important customer.

    Indeed, should any company start taking people back to the Moon, such an action could or would give the ((F)LOP) Gateway (to nowhere) a purpose for existence.
    The Gateway, [former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin] said, would be useful only when there are facilities on the moon producing propellant that could be transported to the Gateway, now serving as a depot. “We should be, with all deliberate speed, returning to the moon and learning how to utilize the resources of our nearest Earth-orbit object. In my opinion.”
    I agree with Griffin, on this point. The previous quote was a reason against Gateway (Gate-why?), in the debate. The following is a reason in favor of it:
    The advantage of the Gateway, [Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations] said, was its sustainability and flexibility. “It’s seen as not optimal for any one particular location on the moon, but it gives you the entire lunar surface.”

    Combining both reasons could make NASA’s Gateway project useful. With the way that NASA tends to delay its projects and the way that SpaceX tends to not delay, it is possible that Gateway’s timing may end up just right so that it is almost the right thing in nearly the right place at about the right time to support lunar exploration, a lunar settlement, or a Lunar Village.

    But all this is moot if we forever delay commercial manned flights.

  • Kirk

    While some articles have reported a one day per day delay from the shutdown, I have not seen anything official indicating that those NASA personnel required for the various pre-flight steps of the milestone which is this test flight have either been furloughed or are exempt due to the indirect association of this mission with crew rotation.

    In Friday’s Rocket Report, Eric Berger reported that the delays are also due to “ongoing work to resolve technical issues”.

  • Kirk: I do not buy the claims of “technical issues.” SpaceX’s rocket is reliable and well proven, including its most recent iteration. The Dragon capsule is also well proven and reliable. And though this is an upgraded version to fly humans and not cargo, I just can’t believe there can be any real issues with it that would justify any further delay.

    This is politics, pure politics, designed to stall these private capsules, and especially to stall SpaceX. And until they provide me some information outlining a real technical issue, something they have not done during the past two years while NASA complained about a host of non-issues, I will continue to believe that.

  • Kirk

    NSF’s Chris Bergin: “Obviously preliminary, but the Eastern Range is now showing the Static Fire for the DM-1 mission’s Falcon 9 (B1051.1) as NET January 23, (and still showing NET February 9 as the launch date).”

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