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SpaceX crew transport completes major review

Elizabeth Howell, Contributor
20 August 2013, 12:08

Sen—Space Exploration Technologies -- more commonly known as SpaceX -- has successfully completed a review to test spacecraft orbital and entry systems for future astronaut crews.

The technology will be used on SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, the cargo version of which has already completed missions to the International Space Station.

While those missions have brought acclaim for the Californian company, a crewed flight would give SpaceX something more: the ability to launch American government astronauts into space from U.S. soil.

This capability is something that SpaceX funding partner NASA has been longing for since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Station crews today venture into orbit on Russian Soyuz spacecraft from a launch pad in Kazakhstan.

Officials from SpaceX and NASA conducted the preliminary design review to take a look at the systems the crew would use to stay alive in space and during re-entry.

This includes functions such as breathable air, to providing food and water for up to seven crew members. Additionally, SpaceX described how the spacecraft would arrive at the station and dock with it, which included a discussion on the software that will be used.

"NASA has learned a lot about keeping our astronaut crews safe throughout a mission, and we don't want those lessons to be forgotten," stated Ed Mango, NASA's commercial crew program manager. "So, we're sharing a lot of what we already know, and the company is adding its own innovations to suit its needs and meet its challenges."

With this review under its belt -- as well as another finished in December for ground systems and ascent -- SpaceX  is now ready to start the detailed design for its Dragon spacecraft, Falcon 9 rocket and other systems to bring the astronauts into space. 

SpaceX is one of three companies receiving funding and support from NASA's Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) initiative.

Orbital Sciences recently announced the target date of its first demonstration flight of the Cygnus spacecraft to the ISS between September 15 and September 19. The company has already tested the rocket that will bring the spacecraft into orbit. Called Antares, it underwent a test flight in April.

The other company, Boeing, recently released pictures of an astronaut crew using a mockup of its CST-100 spacecraft. In May, the company also finished wind tunnel testing of the spacecraft and its integrated launch vehicle.

NASA officials, however, have expressed concern that the fiscal 2014 budget will not provide the needed funds to get these spacecraft off the ground quickly. From a request for its commercial crew program of just over $800 million (£500 million), NASA is perhaps facing a cut to as little as $500 million (£320 million).

In media reports in late July, Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said the lower funding level would likely mean only two companies would get funded in the next iteration of the commercial crew program.

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