SpaceX nears milestone on key crew launch system test

SpaceX is keeping relatively close to schedule on one of the bold timelines pronounced by its CEO Elon Musk — an unusual but welcome twist from the company’s track record of sticking to its predicted timelines. Specifically, SpaceX notes that it has now completed seven system tests of the latest, upgraded version of the parachutes it plans to use with its Crew Dragon capsule when that launches with astronauts on board for the first time.

The parachute system is crucial, because it’s what provides the safe descent for astronauts on board the Crew Dragon when they return to Earth from the International Space Station once SpaceX’s crewed spacecraft is past the testing phase and fully operational. SpaceX has developed multiple iterations of the parachute system, and is currently on version 3, which features upgraded, more durable materials and new seam sewing processes to provide maximum strength.

Musk said in October that 10 successful tests in a row with the Mark 3 system would be the confidence bar SpaceX would have to attain before moving on to using the new system with the crew capsule, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine suggested those 10 tests might be able to be run prior to the end of the year. SpaceX shared on Tuesday that it has now run seven such tests, making that 10 figure seem within range prior to the close of 2019.

That would set up SpaceX nicely for a full demonstration mission and actual crewed launch in the first half of 2020, a timeline Bridenstine has repeated lately for crew launches by both SpaceX and NASA’s other commercial crew partner, Boeing. Boeing is set to do an in-flight abort test, another key milestone for these crewed programs, later this month.