Vice President Mike Pence has promised that American astronauts would soon reach space aboard US-made rockets, but with Boeing and SpaceX struggling to build a reliable craft, even NASA is skeptical of the VP’s wishful thinking.
“Before we even get to the summer… the United States will return American astronauts to space on American rockets from American soil. We’re going back and we’re going back from the USA,” Pence told an audience at NASA’s Langley Research Center on Wednesday.
Without a shuttle of its own, NASA has turned to corporations to develop and supply its spacecraft – originally by 2017 – with Elon Musk’s SpaceX still duking it out with aerospace giant Boeing for the job.
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Awarded $5.1 billion in federal funds for its Starliner capsule, Boeing has struggled to make the vessel shipshape. The company was forced to abort an unmanned test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in December due to a software glitch, pushing back its next launch to sometime around “mid 2020” – likely taking the company out of the running for any manned launches before summertime.
SpaceX’s $3.1 billion Crew Dragon program has seen better results – completing a successful unmanned mission to the ISS in March 2019 – but with delays and technical issues, it too may fail to come through on Pence’s promise.
The Crew Dragon encountered a catastrophic equipment failure during an engine test last April, resulting in a fiery explosion at a testing site in Florida. Though the test was repeated again successfully in November, it ultimately dashed hopes of returning American astronauts to space on a domestically produced craft in 2019.
With the Crew Dragon’s first manned test flight slated for May, which will send two astronauts into space for two weeks, Musk’s brainchild won’t fulfill any of its six contracted missions with NASA until well into the summer, which all hinges on the success of the prior test.
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Despite the uncertain schedule for its nascent shuttle, SpaceX has already begun lining up trips for “space tourists” aboard the Dragon, which it said could launch as early as 2021.
NASA itself appears to lack confidence in the vice president’s optimistic timeline, as the agency is currently negotiating for seats on two Russian Soyuz flights to the International Space Station, reportedly planned for this October and April 2021. American astronauts have hitched rides with their Russian counterparts since the US shuttle program was scrapped in 2011, with NASA paying some $80 million per seat.
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