SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Program Delay: 3+ Years

An instrumented mannequin sits in the Crew Dragon spacecraft for the Demo-1 mission. (Credit: SpaceX)

Updated Oct. 9, 2019 at 9:08 am PDT with paragraph summarizing some of the reasons for the schedule delays.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

There’s been a lot of discussion over the last week or so about NASA’s delay plagued Commercial Crew Program, which is designed to restore the nation’s ability to launch astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011.

Prior to SpaceX CEO’s Elon Musk’s Sept. 28 webcast update on the Starship program, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed frustration that the company wasn’t more focused on the Crew Dragon program that hasn’t flown astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) yet.

Asked about the delay by a CNN journalist after giving an update on Starship’s progress on Sept. 28, Musk questioned whether Bridenstine was asking about delays at with commercial crew or with NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). He laughed and mugged for the camera.

Musk’s rabid fans cheered it to be a sick burn against against a slow-moving space agency. The administrator diplomatically called it not helpful. He also revealed the cause of his pique.

NASA might need to go hat in hand to the Russians again to buy seats for its astronauts aboard Soyuz spacecraft for 2020 because of further delays by SpaceX and Boeing in fielding their commercial crew spacecraft, he said.

NASA has spent billions of dollars buying Soyuz seats at ever rising prices. Bridenstine said the cost is now up to about $85 million apiece.

Musk’s defenders were having none of it. They expressed outraged that the head of NASA dared to criticize Musk and SpaceX for being late on a program the space agency is paying them billions to do.

And what about Boeing? they asked. Why not criticize them, too? Aren’t they behind on their Starliner spacecraft?

Yes, they are. And the company will be the subject of a future post. For now, let’s deal with SpaceX. How far behind schedule are Musk and company? And what the prospects going forward?

SpaceX is running 5.5 years behind schedule on a critical Crew Dragon abort test that was supposed to have been done under the previous round of funding in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

On the crucial crewed flight test to the International Space Station (ISS) — the last major milestone before the vehicle is certified to carry astronauts — SpaceX is already running three years behind schedule with additional delays ahead. The flight is almost certainly delayed into 2020.

There are a variety of reasons for the delays, including under funding by Congress, delays by NASA in reviewing documentation, the need to meet strict certification standards, and technical problems discovered during testing (“this is why we test”). Bridenstine did not, nor has he ever, blamed SpaceX or Musk for all of the schedule slips.

With that said, let’s take a look at SpaceX’s original milestones and see where things stand.

SpaceX Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) Milestones

Milestones: 20
Milestones Completed: 19
Milestones Remaining: 1
Total Possible Award: $460 Million
Total Awarded to Date: $430 Million
Total Award Remaining: $30 Million

DESCRIPTIONORIGINAL DATE
STATUSAMOUNT
In-Flight Abort Test. SpaceX will conduct an in-flight abort test of the Dragon spacecraft. The in-flight abort test will supplement the pad abort test and complete the corners-of-the-box stress cases. The in-flight abort scenario represents a Dragon abort while under propulsive flight of the launch vehicle during the worst-case dynamic loads on the CTS.April 2014NET November-December 2019$30 Million

The Crew Dragon in-flight abort test has been delayed more than five years. A main reason was to use a final version of a spacecraft that evolved during development.

SpaceX was scheduled to conduct the test earlier this year. However, the capsule to be used for that flight exploded on April while undergoing pre-flight tests. It was the same spacecraft that flew to the International Space Station (ISS) without a crew on SpaceX’s first demonstration mission (DEMO-1) in March.

A subsequent investigation found the explosion resulted after a leak in the spacecraft’s pressurization system allowed nitrogen tetroxide to make contact with a titanium valve.

SpaceX is making a series of design changes to eliminate the possibility of another explosion. Those changes are still being tested and certified for flight, Bridenstine said.

A source familiar with the Commercial Crew Program said a key problem SpaceX faced after the April setback was that it only had two Crew Dragon capsules in development: the one that had just exploded, and the one for the second demonstration mission (Demo-2) flight that will carry astronauts to the space station.

The source, who requested anonymity, said SpaceX engineers removed all equipment and systems from the Demo-2 capsule that are not required for the in-flight abort tests. Mass simulators were placed in the spacecraft to replace the weight of the removed systems.

SpaceX has shipped that capsule to Cape Canaveral along with the Falcon 9 that will launch it on the in-flight abort test. Musk tweeted on Tuesday that processing the capsule and booster will take about 10 weeks. He predicted the in-flight abort test could take place as early as late November or early December.

SpaceX has filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the use of radio frequencies for the abort test. The window for the test runs from Nov. 23, 2019 to May 23, 2020.

The source said the length of the window indicates that the test might slip into next year. Musk has a history of overly optimistic schedule predictions. And SpaceX has done previous tests near the end of windows in the past, the source said.

The date of the in-flight abort test will have a major impact on subsequent Crew Dragon flight to the space station. How is that coming along?

Let’s take a look at SpaceX’s progress for the current Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) round of funding.

SpaceX Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) Milestones

NO.DESCRIPTIONDATE
1Certification Baseline Review (CBR)December 2014
2Initial Propulsion Module Testing CompleteApril 2015
3Avionics Test Bed ActivationMay 2015
4Delta Critical Design Review (dCDR)June 2015
5Docking System Qualification Testing CompleteAugust 2015
6Propulsive Land Landing Test CompleteSeptember 2015
7Launch Site Operational Readiness ReviewNovember 2015
8Flight Test without Crew Certification Review (FTCR)
December 2015
9ECLSS Integrated Test CompleteFebruary 2016
10Flight to ISS Without CrewMarch 2016
11Parachute Qualification CompleteApril 2016
12Space Suit Qualification Testing CompleteMay 2016
13Launch Site Operational Readiness Review for Crew
June 2016
14Design Certification Review (DCR)July 2016
15Flight Test Readiness Review (FTRR)
September 2016
16Flight to ISS with Crew
October 2016
17Operations Readiness Review (ORR)January 2017
18Certification Review (CR)April 2017

The table above shows the original SpaceX milestones from when the CCtCAP contract was awarded in September 2014. Since then, NASA has added a number of milestones, split others and deleted the requirement for propulsive landing in favor of Crew Dragon parachuting into the ocean.

The company is running three years behind its original October 2016 date for the Demo-2 mission with astronauts to ISS. The question is how much longer will that flight be delayed. Musk did not address that schedule in his tweets today.

Musk told CNN on Sept. 28 that SpaceX would have the Demo 2 capsule and rocket at Cape Canaveral in November. He also predicted that the mission could be flown in three or four months.

Both Bridenstine and Parabolic Arc’s source expressed skepticism about whether Musk’s schedule is realistic.

The source said SpaceX needs to integrate the components removed from the original Demo-2 capsule into a new Crew Dragon vehicle that will carry astronauts. The source said that integration can typically take six months to a year, but that SpaceX would probably try to do it on a faster schedule.

Shipping the new Demo-2 capsule from SpaceX headquarters in California to the Cape in November would likely require a lot of the integration to take place in Florida. That would not be an ideal situation given that most of the company’s resources are at its West Coast headquarters, the source said.

Not everyone at NASA was supportive of the decision to strip the original Demo-2 capsule and integrate the systems into a new vehicle. The space agency prefers to have components and systems integrated as a group rather than mix-and-matching them with different capsules, the source said.

However, one advantage of the decision is that it will allow SpaceX to make a number of improvements in the new Demo 2 capsule.

SpaceX officials have said the capsule originally intended for the Demo-2 flight was configured for a two-week stay at the space station. The upgraded capsule will be capable of a long-duration stay, which could alleviate NASA’s burden of buying additional Soyuz seats.

One of SpaceX’s outstanding milestones is the certification of the parachute system. Crew Dragon utilizes four parachutes instead of the three used on the Dragon cargo vehicle that resupplies the space station. The parachutes have experienced failures during drop tests.

Musk tweeted on Tuesday that SpaceX is working to solve the problem.

“We had to reallocate some resources to speed this up & received great support from Airborne, our parachute supplier. I was at their Irvine factory with the SpaceX team on Sat[urday] and Sun[day]. We’re focusing on the advanced Mk3 chute, which provides highest safety factor for astronauts,” he wrote.

Bridenstine’s Bind

NASA astronauts last launched to the space station from U.S. soil in July 2011 aboard the final flight of the space shuttle program. Since then, the space agency has been forced to buy an ever increasing number of Soyuz seats at ever higher prices as SpaceX and Boeing have fallen increasingly behind schedule.

An audit published in September 2016 by NASA’s Office of Inspector General showed the increase in seat costs.

soyuz_seat_costs_table_2006-18

“The roundtrip cost for a seat on the Soyuz has increased approximately 384 percent over the last decade from $21.3 million in 2006 to $81.9 million under the most recent contract modification signed in August 2015,’ the report stated.

[See: “NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: Update on Development and Certification Efforts,” NASA Office of Inspector General, Report No. IG-16-028]

NASA has purchased even more seats since the audit was published three years ago.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Bridenstine also criticized Musk for joking about delays in NASA’s SLS program when CNN asked him about the administrator’s critical tweet.

Well, I don’t think that’s helpful. Commercial Crew is about getting to low-Earth orbit. We are spending $85 million every time we have to buy a Russian Soyuz seat to get to the International Space Station.

SLS, that’s a whole different mission. SLS is going to the moon. So I don’t know why you would compare the two. But certainly SLS is behind schedule and over cost. We want them to get back on cost and schedule as well. We are holding them accountable just as much as anybody else.

Bridenstine also denied he was singling out SpaceX for criticism in his tweet. He said he has been critical of delays by “all contractors that overpromise and underdeliver.”

Our contractors have to be as committed to that as we are. I was getting a lot of calls from the media about this event, and so we just sent a tweet and said, look, we look forward to this, this is exciting, but at the same time we expect our contractors to be as committed to the programs that the American taxpayer has invested in.

Bridenstine is scheduled to visit SpaceX headquarters on Thursday to get an update on the Crew Dragon program. Since his initial criticism, the administrator’s mood seems to have lightened. On Oct. 3, he tweeted:

“I had a great phone call with @elonmusk this week, and I’m looking forward to visiting @SpaceX in Hawthorne next Thursday. More to come soon!

Following a tour of the facilities, SpaceX will host a media availability with Bridenstine, Musk, and the crew of the the Demo-2 mission, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.

The media availability will be streamed live on Bridenstine’s Twitter account at http://www.twitter/com/jimbridenstine.