On Saturday afternoon, SpaceX successfully recovered a Dragon capsule that had returned from a cargo delivery to the International Space Station. The Dragon has so far been used mostly for those cargo runs, but it was also designed to carry crew — and NASA announced last week that it expects SpaceX to conduct a crewed test flight by the end of the year.
SpaceX’s crewed test flight is slated for December, after an uncrewed flight in August. Boeing will also be demonstrating its CST-100 Starliner capsule, with a crewed flight in November following an uncrewed flight in August.
NASA’s goal is to launch crews to the ISS from U.S. soil, a task that has fallen to Russia’s space program since the retirement of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011. NASA began looking for private launch companies to take over starting in 2010, and contracted both SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to pursue crewed launches. The push to restore America’s crewed spaceflight capacity has been delayed in part, according to a detailed survey by Ars Technica, by Congress redirecting funds in subsequent years.
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The test flights could determine whether Boeing or SpaceX conducts the first U.S. commercial space launch to the ISS. Whichever company gets that honor may also claim a symbolic U.S. flag stuck to a hatch on the space station. Sources speaking to Ars describe the race between the two companies as too close to call, and say that a push to early 2019 is entirely possible. But in an apparent vote of confidence, NASA has already begun naming astronauts to helm the flights.
SpaceX did experience an unfortunately timed failure just after NASA’s timeline announcement. Despite a successful launch, the secretive Zuma mission appears to have failed at the deployment stage. Though causes of the failure are still unclear, one SpaceX customer has blamed it on contractor Northrup Grumman, rather than on SpaceX.