SpaceX could be launching astronauts with its Crew Dragon spacecraft up into space as early as the start of 2020, said NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine. If all goes according to plan, this would be a momentous moment for American space exploration.
There has previously been some tension between Bridenstine and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, over the very delayed Crew Dragon spacecraft. However, the duo have stated that all is well once again.
Once the spacecraft is operational it would serve as the main transportation for astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time for Americans since 2011.
Safety is a priority
It was at a news conference that Musk and Bridenstine, alongside the two astronauts due to fly out on the Crew Dragon capsule, that Musk announced their hopes of launching into space in early 2020.
However, he strongly stressed that the astronauts' safety comes first and foremost and if there are any issues with the upcoming tests, the launch would be delayed.
Bridenstine backed these comments up by saying "If everything goes according to plan, it would be in the first quarter of next year. But remember—and this is the important thing that we have to get right on messaging—there are still things that we can learn or could learn that could be challenging that we have to resolve."
Bridenstine continued, "I'm not saying that's going to happen, I don't know. That's why we test."
Testing is crucial, especially as the Crew Dragon's parachutes and propulsion system had some issues earlier this year.
"It's a pretty arduous engineering job to get the parachutes right," said Musk. "Parachutes, they look easy but they are definitely not easy. We want to get at least something on the order of 10 successful tests in a row before launching astronauts."
After spending the day with CEO Elon Musk, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine says he's now "very confident" in SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft, indicating the two men are back on the same page after their crossfire last month about delays in the program https://t.co/6W8dfH1Xc6— CNN International (@cnni) October 11, 2019
Why is this such an important moment for American space exploration?
Since closing off its space shuttle program in 2011, NASA has relied on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft to ferry its astronauts to and from the space station. Each seat costs $85 million.
It's quite understandable, then, that NASA has put SpaceX and Boeing in charge of designing and building new space shuttles.
In 2014, NASA awarded SpaceX $2.6 billion for their Crew Dragon project, and Boeing received $4.2 billion for their CST-100 Starliner. The hope is for these companies to build a functional and operational Commercial Crew Program.
Which is exactly what they've been working on, and it looks as though SpaceX may be on the cusp on finalizing their project.
We'll have to wait and see how the tests play out in the coming months, and whether or not we'll be watching the first all-American space shuttle launch in early 2020.