Commercial Crew assignments; NASA nears goal of human space transport innovation

by Chris Gebhardt

An announcement most have waited years for.  NASA has officially announced the flight assignments for the first crewed test and operational flights of SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner crew transportation vehicles.  The announcements come as the Commercial Crew Program gears up for the uncrewed and crewed test flights of the first commercially developed vehicles that will fly U.S. astronauts to Low Earth Orbit and the International Space Station – marking a new chapter in human space transportation innovation by NASA to the commercial sector.

The test flight dates:

Ahead of today’s announcement, NASA officially updated the new test flight schedule for both SpaceX and Boeing yesterday via the agency’s website.

The new dates include SpaceX’s Demo Mission -1 (DM-1) uncrewed flight of Dragon launching in November 2018.

That date matches Space Station schedule analysis discussion by in early July (an article that can be found here) relating to comments made by International Space Station Program Manager Kirk Shireman in late-June regarding the busy visiting vehicle and crew scheduled aboard the International Space Station between August and late-October and the need to see exactly when Dragon could be accommodated into that schedule at Station.

Following SpaceX’s uncrewed demo flight, NASA now anticipates that Boeing’s uncrewed flight test, known as the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), will occur either in late-2018 or early-2019.

Dragon and Starliner with the ISS. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2)

Under the new schedule released yesterday by NASA, SpaceX will follow their uncrewed demo with the crew demo mission, known as DM-2, No Earlier Than (NET) April 2019.

Boeing is then set to follow with Starliner’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) NET mid-2019.

(NOTE: Last week, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory panel, ASAP, warned that Boeing’s test schedule was largely in flux and not well understood until the company could identify and make progress on corrective action with the pad abort thruster system that suffered a failure in early-June.  Therefore, the Boeing dates, according to ASAP, might be more in flux than SpaceX’s.)

Impressively, the new schedules do not show a large slip for either provider.  However, it is important to note that these new dates are NET targets and that both SpaceX and Boeing still have more work ahead of them before their uncrewed and crew demo flights will be allowed to launch to the International Space Station.

As such, readjustments and slips to yesterday’s announced dates can be expected and would not be surprising – as is usually the case with the introduction of new crew transportation vehicles.

However, the fact that the newly aligned dates are not significantly different from the previously announced test targets is a positive sign that the end of the road is near and that the commencement of commercial crew transportation services could likely begin next year.

The crews:

Announcing the astronauts who will fly the first crew test fights for both SpaceX and Boeing, NASA also announced the first crews who will fly on the first Post-Certification Missions (PCMs) for both vehicles as well – crews that will perform long-duration stays aboard the International Space Station.

Also of note is the fact that the first crew to fly the Boeing Crew Flight Test might also spend six months aboard the International Space Station, as NASA previously indicated a potential interest in extending the first Starliner crew test mission from 14 days to six months.

SpaceX DM-2:

Dr. Bob Behnken.  Dr. Behnken is from St. Ann, Missouri.  He earned a doctorate in engineering, is a flight test engineer, and Colonel in the Air Force.  He joined the astronaut corps in 2000, and flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour twice – for the STS-123 and STS-130 missions.

During his two spaceflights on Endeavour, he performed six spacewalks for a total of more than 37 hours of EVA experience.

The crew of SpaceX DM-2, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley. (Credit: NASA)

Joining Dr. Behnken is fellow NASA astronaut Doug Hurley.  Doug was the pilot of STS-135 – the final flight of Space Shuttle Atlantis and the final flight of the Shuttle program.  He grew up in Apalachin, New York, and was a test pilot in the Marine Corps before coming to NASA in 2000 as an astronaut.

He achieved the rank of Colonel in the Marine Corps, and his first spaceflight was as Pilot of Space Shuttle Endeavour for STS-127 in July 2009.

Boeing CFT:

Eric Boe is the first crewmember for Starliner’s first test flight.   He was born in Miami, Florida, but grew up in Atlanta, Georgia.  He came to NASA from the Air Force, where he was a fighter pilot and test pilot and rose to the rank of Colonel.

He was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000.  His first mission was as Pilot of Space Shuttle Endeavour for the STS-126 mission, with Chris Ferguson as Commander, in November 2008.

He returned to space in February 2011 as Pilot of Space Shuttle Discovery on its final flight, STS-133.

Starliner crew – via NASA

Joining the crew is Chris Ferguson, a former NASA and current Boeing astronaut.  Ferguson was the Pilot of STS-115/Atlantis in September 2006, the Shuttle flight that resumed construction of the International Space Station following the loss of Columbia.

After just one flight, Ferguson served as Commander of Space Shuttle Endeavour’s STS-126 mission to the International Space Station in November 2008.  As a final honor with NASA, he was chosen to Command the final flight of the Shuttle, returning to Atlantis for the Program’s last ride in 2011.

Ferguson is a native of Philadelphia and a retired Navy captain.  After STS-135, he left NASA for Boeing, where he has been integral in the design, development, and build of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle.

Nicole Aunapu Mann will round out the first crew test flight for Starliner.  Mann is a California native and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Marine Corps.  She is an F/A-18 test pilot with more than 2,500 flight hours in over 25 aircraft.  She was selected as an astronaut in 2013, and this will be her first trip to space.

SpaceX’s first PCM:

Victor Glover is from Pomona, California, and is a Navy commander, Naval aviator, and test pilot with almost 3,000 hours flying in more than 40 different aircraft, 400 carrier landings and 24 combat missions.

Dragon 2 crew – via NASA

He was selected as part of the 2013 astronaut candidate class, and this his will be his first spaceflight.

Joining Glover on SpaceX’s first long-duration mission to ISS is Mike Hopkins.  Hopkins is a spaceflight veteran who spent 166 days on the International Space Station for Expeditions 37 and 38 and conducted two spacewalks.

He was born in Lebanon, Missouri, and grew up on a farm near Richland, Missouri.  He is a Colonel in the Air Force, where he was a flight test engineer before being selected as a NASA astronaut in 2009.

Boeing’s first PCM:

The first astronaut of Starliner’s first long-duration mission is John Cassada.  Cassada grew up in White Bear Lake, Minnesota.  He is a Navy Commander and test pilot with more than 3,500 flight hours in more than 40 aircraft.

He was selected as an astronaut in 2013.  This will be his first spaceflight.

Joining Cassada is veteran Shuttle astronaut and ISS Commander Sunita Williams.

Starliner Crew – via NASA

Williams has spent 322 days in space, commanded the International Space Station, and performed seven spacewalks.

She first flew to space on STS-116/Discovery in December 2006, where she then took up residence on the Station for her first long-duration mission.

She returned to Earth on STS-117/Atlantis in June 2007.  For her second long-duration mission, Williams Commanded the Space Station, becoming the second woman to do so.

She was born in Euclid, Ohio, but her hometown is Needham, Massachusetts.  Williams came to NASA from the Navy, where she served as a test pilot and rose to the rank of Captain.  She was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1998.


While the main goal of the Commercial Crew Program has been to return the U.S.’s ability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil, another major part of the program has been to pass along the innovation and knowledge NASA has gained since the late-1950s in human space transportation to the commercial sector.

Herein, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is part of an initiative within NASA to expand the boundaries of human space exploration – extending the ability to launch humans into Earth orbit and beyond to include not just NASA but private companies, like SpaceX and Boeing, as well.

If there is one thing the CCP has proven above all is the difficulty, the pride, and the success the commercial companies have had in developing this technology – none of which is easy to innovate and integrate given the safety standards that must be maintained to protect crews in the harsh environments of launch, orbit, and reentry.

Evidence to this is the struggle both providers have faced at times.

SpaceX has had to undertake redesigns of the COPVs (Composite Overwrapped Pressure Vessels) on their Falcon 9 rockets and has also had to perform redesigns on certain elements of the Merlin 1D engines as well as abandon some innovation they were hoping to include on the crew Dragon – most notably retropropulsion-only landings without the aid of parachutes.

Boeing has also seen setbacks with the development and integration of Starliner, most notably the pad abort failure the company suffered in June.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) has also had to modify a portion of its Atlas V rocket after initial understanding of how Starliner would affect the Atlas V, which will fly without a payload fairing, was shown via computer analysis to be unacceptable for the rocket’s flight regime.

A look inside Starliner’s cockpit, with traditional, physical crew interfaces and some touch-screen tech. (Credit: Boeing)

But through these setbacks, both companies have persevered and persisted, developing highly-capable crew transportation vehicles for NASA that follow-on from the example set by the Space Shuttle in terms of reusability.

However, where the Shuttles were incredibly complex, Dragon and Starliner have been designed with a simpler and innovative build process that will aid post-flight inspections and refurbishment.

Nonetheless, given the planned gaps between flights of each vehicle (about one year between launches), it is unlikely that a Dragon or a Starliner will – at least for NASA – experience such a rapid flight turn around as the Shuttle Orbiters did.

But that doesn’t mean the innovation and reuse is not to be commended.

What is also commendable is the different tracks Boeing and SpaceX took to the internal, crew interface designs of their vehicles.

A look inside Crew Dragon – with largely touch-screen crew interfaces. (Credit: SpaceX)

Publicly released images indicate that Boeing’s Starliner will largely employ manual interfaces with the crew, with physical knobs and buttons much like those used during the Space Shuttle program, with a some touch-screen technology.

Conversely, publicly available information regarding Crew Dragon indicates a much more sleek, “modern”, and touchscreen interface design (with a few manual buttons), a design that matches those of Elon Musk’s vision and interfaces employed within vehicles of his other companies.

But more importantly, while some have clear favoritism toward one particular company over the other, it is important to recognize the progress and innovation of both companies and the tremendous amount of work, pride, and human hours that have been devoted to the development of these vehicles.

It does not matter which vehicle launches first.

It does not matter which vehicle is the first to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station and “capture the flag” left on the Station in July 2011 by the crew of the final Space Shuttle mission to be retrieved by the crew of the first commercial vehicle mission.

Both of these vehicles are incredibly necessary to the continuation and uninterrupted access to the International Space Station for not just the United States but our USOS (United States Operating Segment) partners – Canada, ESA (European Space Agency), and JAXA (Japan) – as well.

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