The last time astronauts were able to get a direct flight from the U.S. to the stars was in 2011 when Space Shuttle Atlantis flew its last mission. That could change soon with both Boeing and SpaceX working to convince NASA that they can start serving as a taxi service for astronauts heading to the International Space Station.
On Thursday NASA released target dates for both the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Dragon capsules to begin testing. Un-crewed test flights will start in August, followed by Boeing’s first crewed test flight in November when the Starliner blasts off with (possibly!) a NASA astronaut and Boeing employee aboard. Then, SpaceX’s Dragon will usher two NASA astronauts to orbit from Kennedy Space Center in December, a few months behind the original test schedule.
Once the test flights are done successfully and safely, NASA can certify either or both companies to ferry astronauts on low-Earth-orbit missions. Right now, crew members headed to the ISS must fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft launched from Baikanor, Kazakhstan.
However, a new report from NASA’s watchdog, the Aerospace Safety and Advisory Panel (ASAP), has raised a few red flags about the program, including whether or not either SpaceX or Boeing will be able to meet the stipulated statistical limit of no more than one possible fatal accident per 270 flights and appropriately protect their capsules from collision damage caused by space debris. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the report also cited two specific, potentially high-risk elements of SpaceX’s fuel tanks on its Falcon 9 rockets, which may be the reason for the delay in SpaceX’s launch schedule.
That said, ASAP urged NASA managers to “maintain a sense of urgency while not giving in to schedule pressure.”