SpaceX could fly its first crew in 2020

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reassured journalists this afternoon that their partnership to fly NASA astronauts to the space station is still strong and that the first crews could launch on SpaceX vehicles as soon as the first quarter of next year. This show of strength at SpaceX headquarters comes just two weeks after the two figures exchanged public jabs in the press, suggesting friction between SpaceX and NASA.

“Elon and I are in strong agreement on this — that the one thing we have under development that is of the highest priority is launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine said during his visit to SpaceX. “Human spaceflight is the reason that SpaceX was created, and we’re incredibly honored to partner with NASA,” Musk said. “And just to make this happen, this is a dream come true, really.”

SpaceX is one of two companies developing hardware to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew program. Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, NASA has had to rely on Russia’s Soyuz rocket to transport crew members to the ISS — an option that costs roughly $85 million per seat. But with the Commercial Crew program, the goal is for SpaceX and rival Boeing to ferry astronauts on American-made capsules for much lower costs — around $50 million per seat, according to NASA’s estimates.

However, the Commercial Crew program has been plagued by delays. NASA expected the first crews to fly in 2017, but the target dates have been repeatedly pushed back. In March of this year, SpaceX flew an uncrewed version of its capsule, called Crew Dragon, which successfully docked with the ISS and then returned to Earth. But a month later, that same capsule exploded during a ground test in Cape Canaveral, Florida, leading to further delays and questions about the future of SpaceX’s timeline. No human has flown on a Commercial Crew vehicle yet.

Now, both Bridenstine and Musk say that SpaceX is almost ready to fly, depending on how testing goes through the end of the year. “When it comes to these new development capabilities, I will say that we are getting very close,” Bridenstine said today. “And we’re very confident that in the first part of next year, we will be ready to launch American astronauts on American rockets.”

Bridenstine noted that timeline could easily change, though. “If something comes up that we didn’t know, then it could be longer than that,” he said. “Regardless of whether we make it in the first part of next year is less relevant than the fact that we will make it.”

The optimistic tone contrasts with the tense exchange that occurred between Bridenstine and Musk in the run-up to the CEO’s latest keynote event. On Saturday, September 28th, Musk gave a big presentation in Boca Chica, Texas, where he detailed the progress on his company’s future Starship rocket, a giant vehicle that’s supposed to take humans into deep space.

The Friday before the event, Bridenstine tweeted his thoughts on the update. “I’m looking forward to the SpaceX event tomorrow,” he wrote in a statement. “In the meantime, Commercial Crew is years behind schedule. NASA expects the same level of enthusiasm focused on the investments of the American taxpayer. It’s time to deliver.” At the time, the statement read as criticism of the event, suggesting that the celebration surrounding the new rocket was inappropriate when SpaceX still had yet to fulfill its obligations to NASA and get the company’s other vehicles flying.