SpaceX could launch NASA astronauts on the Crew Dragon in 2020

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made a visit to the SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on Thursday to get a firsthand look at the progress on the Crew Dragon rocket — which could be ready for American astronauts in 2020.

Bridenstine livestreamed the press conference of his visit on his Twitter account, and gave updates to the press about the advancements being made with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon commercial rocket. 

“NASA has a lot under development right now, and there is a big difference between development and operations,” Bridenstine said. “What we’re doing now is we are developing brand-new things we have never operated before, and commercial crew is one of them.”

Bridenstine, who was joined by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, said they are in strong agreement that the highest priority is to safely launch American astronauts on American rockets into space. The visit comes after the New York Times reported that the relationship between SpaceX and NASA is “sometimes fractious.” Bridenstine previously called out SpaceX for putting more focus on its Starship than NASA contracts.

“Human space flight is the reason SpaceX was created and we are honored to partner with NASA to make this happen,” Musk said. 

Both men talked about the failure of the Crew Dragon’s April test, and about how far the rocket has come since then. 

“You do tests if you think they might not be fine, and that’s why they’re called tests — so you can figure out what the issues are, improve the design, and retest,” Musk said. 

The Crew Dragon’s explosion in April was due to a leaky valve, which allowed some propellant to leak into high-pressure helium tubes around 100 seconds before the capsule’s thrusters were due to ignite. Better parachutes will allow the capsule to approach its landing at a safe speed so it doesn’t hit the ground or water where it lands too hard.

Musk said during the press conference that the newest design of the parachutes, which he referred to as Mark 3 parachutes, are 10 times safer than Mark 2 parachutes and are twice as safe as Apollo’s parachutes. 

“Mark 3 parachutes are the best parachutes ever, by a lot,” Musk said. 

As far as a timeline of when we can expect the Crew Dragon to be fully ready to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Musk said he wants 10 successful tests in a row before human launches. Musk confirmed that in total, various Crew Dragon tests have gone up to the ISS 19 times.

“During the first part of next year, we should be ready to launch American astronauts on an American rocket,” Bridenstine added. 

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