NASA’s Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011 after being in service for 30-years. Since then NASA has relied on the space programs of other countries or private companies to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. And in 2014, NASA contracted both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing to develop space crafts that could ferry astronauts back into space. SpaceX came up with the Dragon program which is now termed as Dragon 2 by NASA and Boeing unveiled the CST-100 Starliner program as part of their Commercial Crew Development program. Both companies were set to have their first test or development flights in 2017. However, owing to a multitude of different reasons including the Senate scaling back NASA’s budget each year, both companies had to postpone their first flights to 2018.
SpaceX Dragon 2
Planned to launch on an upgraded version of SpaceX’s well-known Falcon 9 rocket, known as Block 5, the Dragon 2 can ferry up to 7 crew members into Low Earth Orbit or to the ISS. The Dragon 2 is also being looked at towards being purposed for space colonisation missions. As of now, plans are being made to use the Dragon 2 with the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle for manned missions to the moon.
The Dragon 2 is based off the cargo carrying Dragon which has been used by SpaceX since 2010. With human being involved, the modifications needed as well as the NASA oversight becomes a lot more stringent. The first manned space flight with the Dragon 2 is slated to take place in May 2018.
Boeing CST-100 Starliner
Set to fly its first crew to space in June 2018, Boeing’s Starliner also boasts of a 7-crew capacity like the Dragon 2. As for the launch vehicles, the Starliner is compatible with the Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon 9 and the upcoming Vulcan launch vehicles. It’s going to be bigger than the Apollo command module and smaller than the Orion Capsule with its 4.56 meter diameter.
The test flight of the Starliner will be performed with a two-man crew consisting of a NASA astronaut and a Boeing test pilot.
Reasons for delays
As mentioned previously, carrying humans is a completely different usage scenario for which the spacecrafts are put under the microscope for a much strenuous level of oversight. Elon Musk, at a July 19 conference (ISS Research and Development Conference) said, “As soon as people enter the picture, it’s really a giant step up in making sure things go right. The oversight from NASA is much tougher.”
Another speculation over the delay is that of funding from NASA which in turn gets it from the US Government. Over the years, we can see that the Senate has mostly given only a fraction of what NASA had requested. However, of late, things have been improving with the latest budgetary sanction being just 0.8 per cent lower than what NASA requested.
Source: Space News