SpaceX and NASA target September for first operational astronaut crew launch

SpaceX and NASA are aiming to launch the first official operational mission of the SpaceX Crew Dragon human-rated spacecraft sometime in September, the agency revealed via a media update this week. The launch had been tracking towards an August date, but the updated timeframe indicates “late September,” allowing time for the completion of the current Crew Dragon Demo-2 mission which will see astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley return to Earth using the SpaceX spacecraft potentially as early as August 1.

The Demo-2 mission, while it carried actual astronauts to the International Space Station, is actually the final step in the test and development phase of human-rating Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, meaning that they’ll then be qualified for regular service transporting astronauts in the eyes of NASA. Crew-1 is the first operational mission, meaning the first considered a standard part of SpaceX’s contract to provide regular astronaut transportation.

Crew-1 is set to carry three NASA astronauts, including Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, to the ISS, along with JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguchi. The launch will take place from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and will deliver the astronauts to the Space Station for a full-length stay, during which time they’ll work with their international peers on various experiments and research for both NASA and partners.

There are of course some dependencies here that are required for Crew-1 to take place by the end of September, including the successful return of Hurley and Behnken from the ISS. That part of the Demo-2 mission needs to go smoothly in order to complete SpaceX’s certification process, and will require retrospective study by NASA to confirm smoother operation, which takes some time.

Behnken and Hurley have just completed another key test for the Crew Dragon while docked at the ISS, called a “habitability assessment,” involving opening and closing the docking hatch, making sure they can operate the waste system as intended, and moving cargo back into Crew Dragon from the Station. All of this is checking off requirements on the long list of items NASA requires for its certification.