We may be poised on the precipice of a new era of spaceflight, but leaping prematurely off it would be a costly mistake — which is why the delays and failures of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the new spacecraft that will likely be soonest to take humans to space, are a matter for concern but not worry. In space, you expect the unexpected.
The sudden explosion of a Crew Dragon test capsule is frightening and frankly embarrassing to a company so heavily focused on an image of futurity and reliability. And a failed parachute deployment doesn’t inspire confidence either. But any historian of the space industry will tell you it’s rare that something with rockets on it doesn’t blow up at some point during development.
The Commercial Crew program was established back in 2010 with the goal of sending a crewed mission to the International Space Station, aboard a new spacecraft, well before the end of the decade. The timeline was understood to be flexible, but budgetary, logistic and technical issues have continually pushed dates further and further out.
While it was once estimated that the first crewed flights might happen in 2018, that year passed without even a first test flight from either of the contracted spacecraft providers, Boeing and SpaceX. That changed in March with the latter’s successful first test flight of Crew Dragon (loaded with cargo, not people). And Boeing’s Starliner is scheduled for flight later this year. Dogged by delays, the companies’ years of hard work seemed to be paying off at last.