WASHINGTON – NASA Administrator James Bridenstine is all but guaranteeing his agency will soon be back in the business of carrying humans into low-Earth orbit in 2019.
"Without question, by the middle of next year, we’ll be flying American astronauts on American rockets from American soil," he told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview at NASA headquarters. "We’re so close."
The pronouncement indicates the confidence the agency has in the two aerospace companies – SpaceX and Boeing – contracted under its Commercial Crew program to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station.
The last space shuttle – Atlantis – carried a crew to the orbiting lab in 2011. Since then, NASA has been hitching rides on Russia’s Soyuz rockets. The cost to U.S. taxpayers is $82 million a seat.
Washington’s reliance on Moscow for rides to the space station the past several years has been a source of frustration among lawmakers and many of those involved in the U.S. space program.
Though the shuttle replacement program began under President Barack Obama, the resumption of crewed missions from U.S. launch pads would present a symbolic victory to President Donald Trump, who has touted a renewed space program as part of his Make America Great Again agenda.
Earlier this month, NASA named the astronaut test pilots who will be the first to fly SpaceX and Boeing capsules launched from Florida’s Space Coast to the International Space Station within a year, according to updated schedules.
The latest schedules show SpaceX appearing slightly ahead in the competition to reach the space station, with plans to fly two astronauts – NASA’s Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – in a Crew Dragon atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in April 2019.
Boeing aims to launch a CST-100 Starliner capsule on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in mid-2019, carrying a three-person crew: NASA’s Eric Boe and Nicole Mann, and Boeing’s Chris Ferguson.
That flight test would go to the station and could last two weeks to six months, depending on NASA’s needs, said Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan.
The tests flights would be preceded by unmanned orbital shakedown cruises.
On a visit last week to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, praised the "remarkable progress" NASA has made to replace the space shuttle program.
But even if all goes smoothly next year, the arrival at the space station would be four years behind schedule.
When Commercial Crew was unveiled in 2010 under the Obama administration, the target date was 2015. But a lack of full funding from the Republican-controlled Congress led to delays. By the time Boeing and SpaceX won contracts in 2014, the date was pushed back to 2017. Further delays have slid schedules to next year.
NASA’s contract with Russia’s space agency Roscosmos goes through 2020, which gives the agency extra time in case Boeing and SpaceX run into problems. But Bridenstine said he envisions U.S. astronauts would keep riding Soyuz rockets for years to come.
"Even when commercial crew is fully ready, we want to maintain this partnership with Russia," he said. "We would launch American astronauts on Soyuz and we would launch Russian cosmonauts on Commercial Crew (rockets)."
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