SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reassured journalists this afternoon that their partnership to fly NASA astronauts to the space station is still strong and that the first crews could launch on SpaceX vehicles as soon as the first quarter of next year. This show of strength at SpaceX headquarters comes just two weeks after the two figures exchanged public jabs in the press, suggesting friction between SpaceX and NASA.
“Elon and I are in strong agreement on this — that the one thing we have under development that is of the highest priority is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said during his visit to SpaceX. “Human spaceflight is the reason that SpaceX was created, and we’re incredibly honored to partner with NASA,” Musk said. “And just to make this happen, this is a dream come true, really.”
SpaceX is one of two companies developing hardware to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew program. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to transport crew members to the ISS — an option that costs roughly $85 million per seat. But with the Commercial Crew program, the goal is for SpaceX and rival Boeing to ferry astronauts on American-made capsules for much lower costs — around $50 million per seat, according to NASA’s estimates.
However, the Commercial Crew program has been plagued by delays. NASA expected the first crews to fly in 2017, but the target dates have been repeatedly pushed back. In March of this year, SpaceX flew an uncrewed version of its capsule, called Crew Dragon, which successfully docked with the ISS and then returned to Earth. But a month later, that same capsule exploded during a ground test in Cape Canaveral, Florida, leading to further delays and questions about the future of SpaceX’s timeline. No human has flown on a Commercial Crew vehicle yet.
Now, both Bridenstine and Musk say that SpaceX is almost ready to fly, depending on how testing goes through the end of the year. “When it comes to these new development capabilities, I will say that we are getting very close,” Bridenstine said today. “And we’re very confident that in the first part of next year, we will be ready to launch American astronauts on American rockets.”
Bridenstine noted that timeline could easily change, though. “If something comes up that we didn’t know, then it could be longer than that,” he said. “Regardless of whether we make it in the first part of next year is less relevant than the fact that we will make it.”
The optimistic tone contrasts with the tense exchange that occurred between Bridenstine and Musk in the run-up to the CEO’s latest keynote event. On Saturday, September 28th, Musk gave a big presentation in Boca Chica, Texas, where he detailed the progress on his company’s future Starship rocket, a giant vehicle that’s supposed to take humans into deep space.
The Friday before the event, Bridenstine tweeted his thoughts on the update. “I’m looking forward to the SpaceX event tomorrow,” he wrote in a statement. “In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.” At the time, the statement read as criticism of the event, suggesting that the celebration surrounding the new rocket was inappropriate when SpaceX still had yet to fulfill its obligations to NASA and get the company’s other vehicles flying.
After his update, Musk shot back at Bridenstine during an interview with CNN. When asked about the administrator’s tweet, Musk cheekily replied, “Did he say Commercial Crew or SLS?” referring to NASA’s long-delayed rocket that’s also supposed to take people into deep space. Musk also claimed that SpaceX would likely be flying its first passengers for the Commercial Crew program in “three or four months.”
Bridenstine swiftly shot down that estimate. In follow up interviews with both CNN and The Atlantic, Bridenstine said he did not think three to four months was a reasonable estimate, since SpaceX has been struggling with a few key areas of development. He also said that Musk’s criticism of the SLS “wasn’t helpful.”
Today’s meeting was a public display of friendliness between Bridenstine and Musk, with Musk making it clear that Crew Dragon is a priority. Even Bridenstine noted that NASA wants Starship to succeed. “We have been a partner on Starship, a non-exchange-of-funds kind of partner, when it comes to aerodynamics, and when it comes to testing and test facilities,” said Bridenstine.
The focus was Commercial Crew. Bridenstine and Musk say that SpaceX faces two big issues. SpaceX ultimately linked the April explosion to a problem with the small engines, called abort thrusters, that are used to carry the Crew Dragon’s crew to safety during an emergency. As a result, the company has had to redesign the abort system. The second problem is parachute testing — something that SpaceX’s rival Boeing has been battling with as well.
“Those are the only two items that I’m aware of, that SpaceX is aware of, that put the schedule at risk,” Musk said today. “But there may be other things that we discover, this is also important to bear in mind. You do not know what you do not know.”
To meet higher standards, SpaceX has upgraded its parachutes by switching materials and changing the stitching pattern used. Musk claims the new parachutes are twice as safe as NASA’s Apollo parachutes, which were used to return humans from the Moon. “My opinion is that these are the best parachutes ever, like, by a lot,” said Musk. The CEO said that SpaceX plans to do at least 10 more parachute drop tests by the end of the year.
As for the abort system, testing is still needed to verify that the new design is sound. But even SpaceX’s first two crew members — NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley — aren’t concerned about riding on the vehicle, despite a few initial questions from friends and family. “These things happen, and while it’s disappointing, it also can be a real gift to the final design,” said Hurley, “because you can inform the final design.” Musk also argued that a lack of problems during testing is indicative of a poor test program. “To be totally frank, if there hasn’t been some hardware that blows up on the test stand, I don’t think you tested it hard enough,” he said.
Musk claimed today that if all testing proceeds normally, the Crew Dragon that will fly Behnken and Hurley could be at its launch site in Cape Canaveral by December. But Bridenstine and Musk reassured everyone that NASA won’t fly astronauts on the vehicle until they are certain the crew will be safe. Still, there is some pressure to fly sooner rather than later. NASA only has a limited number of seats for its astronauts on upcoming Soyuz flights to the station, and those seats run out by the fall of 2020.
No matter what happens, Musk promised transparency as SpaceX moves forward, something that the company has been criticized for not providing over the last few years. “We’ll make sure you’re kept up to speed on… everything we’ve learned, good or bad,” he said. “So you’ll know the straight scoop.”