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SpaceX achieves testing milestone under the shadow of a government shutdown

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Commercial Crew is forging ahead

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon, which is set to fly in February.
Image: SpaceX

During a test yesterday, SpaceX fired up the engines on one of its Falcon 9 rockets, a vehicle that will perform a crucial test flight for NASA in the months ahead. It’s the rocket that will carry SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule to space for the first time to prove that the spacecraft is ready to ferry NASA astronauts. The mission is vital to the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, but the ongoing government shutdown is casting a shadow over preparations for the flight.

For the last five years, SpaceX and aerospace competitor Boeing have been developing spacecraft for NASA to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The two vehicles, Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, will be the primary way US astronauts get to space in the years ahead. This year, both companies are hoping to launch the inaugural missions of this program, known as Commercial Crew. Each is tasked with performing uncrewed test flights of their vehicles first, followed by missions with crew months later. But just as those flights are scheduled to get underway, the government is in a crisis.

Right now, SpaceX is aiming to launch an empty Crew Dragon in February. Yesterday’s test, known as a static fire, checked out the engines on the rocket that will carry that capsule into orbit. Meanwhile, the shutdown — the longest the US has ever experienced — is on its 34th day, and there is no end in sight. The White House is already looking into the impact of the shutdown lasting until March or April. If the Crew Dragon is deemed ready to fly while the government remains closed, it’s possible that the shutdown and launch could overlap.

If it comes to that, NASA and SpaceX have what they need to move ahead with the flight. As others, including Marina Koren in The Atlantic, have pointed out, a government shutdown doesn’t necessarily mean that the launch will be pushed back. While 95 percent of NASA personnel are furloughed right now, there are still NASA employees working without pay on the Crew Dragon mission, doing the necessary reviews and meetings to keep the program on track.

“There are NASA personnel who are considered essential and are continuing to work toward a February flight in coordination with our commercial partner,” Bob Jacobs, a NASA spokesperson, tells The Verge. “At the moment, we’re focused on the work needed to get us to a flight readiness review. That review and our ongoing work with our partner will inform the decision to launch.”

The country’s considerable rocket-launching infrastructure is ready to support the flight, too. The Crew Dragon is launching out of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and all flights that take place from this area are overseen by the US Air Force’s 45th Space Wing. Personnel with the Air Force do tracking and risk analysis for each flight, alert pilots to stay clear of the launch site, and clear the area on the ground so the public is at a safe distance away. All of these individuals are still working; the Department of Defense is already funded through fiscal year 2019 and is therefore unaffected by the shutdown.

The Crew Dragon in SpaceX’s hangar at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Image: SpaceX

There was some concern, however, that the government shutdown might prevent SpaceX from getting the necessary licenses for the Crew Dragon’s flight. All commercial rocket launches must receive a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prior to their missions. And while the government is shut down, the FAA has been unable to process a few launch license applications.

However, SpaceX is in the clear here, too. Certain types of launches for the government do not require FAA licenses, depending on their contracts. This particular mission falls into that category because it is being used to determine if the Crew Dragon is qualified for flight. According to SpaceX’s Commercial Crew contract with NASA, the Crew Dragon’s first flight is considered a “pre-certification mission,” and therefore, it does not need an FAA license. Once it is certified, all future Crew Dragon flights will need an FAA license. For now, NASA will handle the licensing.

Other commercial companies aren’t so lucky. Space startup Vector, for instance, claims that it’s nearly ready for its first test flight to orbit out of Alaska, but it says the FAA cannot complete its launch license for the mission during the shutdown. “USG shutdown stops FAA’s ability to finish our launch license,” Jim Cantrell, Vector’s CEO, said in a tweet. “Hoping DC gets its act together soon.”

Commercial launch providers aren’t the only private space companies that are impacted by the impasse. As the government shutdown drags on, it’s possible that the various contractors that support Commercial Crew could find themselves in a financial bind, making it more difficult for them to continue working. That could lead to more schedule slips.

But for SpaceX, all that matters now is that the necessary reviews at NASA are completed and that the Commercial Crew team clears the Crew Dragon for flight. SpaceX said the static fire went well and that it’s working toward February, while CEO Elon Musk says that the first crewed launch will happen this summer.

With the shutdown, there’s still a lot of uncertainty at NASA, but getting the Commercial Crew program running is critical to the agency. Since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has been relying on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to take the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station. It’s not a cheap agreement: each seat costs NASA about $80 million. The Commercial Crew program is meant to bring US human spaceflight back to American soil.

It seems appropriate that the government should be working when that happens.