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SpaceX Crew Rocket Ready For Launch In January: NASA

The Jan. 7 launch date announcement comes a day after NASA said it would conduct a "cultural assessment study" of the companies.

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SpaceX shows its new spacesuit that will be worn by NASA astronauts during their first spaceflights in the Crew Dragon spacecraft during a visit to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, U.S. VOA

The first flight of a SpaceX rocket tailored to fly astronauts to the International Space Station is set for liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on January 7, NASA said on Wednesday.

The launch test is a crucial milestone in the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program, which aims to launch humans to space from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade.

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration said SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — which will shuttle three astronauts to space from the same launch pad that sent Apollo 11’s three-man crew to the moon in 1969 — will make its debut flight atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on January 7.

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A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from historic launch pad 39-A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. VOA

While NASA did not detail the flight path, it said the test would provide data on the performance of the Falcon 9, Crew Dragon capsule, and ground systems, as well as on-orbit, docking and landing operations.

SpaceX and Boeing Co are the two main contractors selected under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to send astronauts to space as soon as 2019, using their Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner spacecraft respectively.

Since the U.S. space shuttle program was shut down in 2011, NASA has had to rely on Russia to fly astronauts to the space station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (402 km) above Earth.

The Demo-1 launch is the latest test in a rigorous certification timeline imposed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. While SpaceX is targeting early January, NASA spokeswoman Marie Lewis said the demo mission could be pushed back because “flying safely has always taken precedence over schedule.”

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A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket (VOA)

Founded by Tesla Inc Chief Executive Elon Musk, SpaceX said if the January 7 test is successful, it plans to launch its first crewed mission in June 2019, but the timeline may shift.

Boeing plans a similar test launch of the Starliner spacecraft atop its Atlas 5 rocket as soon as March, with a crewed mission following in August.

Also Read: NASA Chooses Landing Site For Mars 2020 Rover

The Jan. 7 launch date announcement comes a day after NASA said it would conduct a “cultural assessment study” of the companies, “including the adherence to a drug-free environment,” prior to crew test flights. (VOA)

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SpaceX Suffers Serious Setback During Crew Capsule Testing

This capsule flew to the International Space Station last month on a crewless trial run, and it was supposed to be reused in a launch abort test in June

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FILE - The Dragon spacecraft is seen in this photo provided by SpaceX. VOA

SpaceX has suffered a serious setback in its effort to launch NASA astronauts into orbit this year, with the fiery loss of its first crew capsule during testing.

Over the weekend, the company’s recently flown Dragon crew capsule was engulfed in smoke and flames on an engine test stand at Cape Canaveral. SpaceX was testing the Dragon’s abort thrusters when Saturday’s accident occurred.

The company said the test area was clear and no one was injured.

This capsule flew to the International Space Station last month on a crewless trial run, and it was supposed to be reused in a launch abort test in June. Another capsule was supposed to follow with two astronauts as early as July. Astronauts haven’t launched from Florida since 2011.

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FILE – The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule approaches the International Space Station, March 3, 2019. VOA

NASA said Monday it’s too early to revise the target launch dates, given that the accident is still so fresh. “This is why we test,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement over the weekend. “We will learn, make the necessary adjustments and safely move forward with our commercial crew program.”

Until Saturday, SpaceX was on a roll to resume crew launches from Florida. The March test flight, to the space station and back, went smoothly. The SuperDraco thrusters embedded in the sides of the capsule were not used during the demo.

The thrusters are crucial to protect astronauts in flight; they’re designed to fire in an emergency and pull the capsule safely away from the rocket.

The University of Southern California’s Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who directed space operations for SpaceX until last year, said it was a “tough day … not good” for the company. “But thankfully no one got hurt and with everything we learn from this anomaly Crew Dragon will be a safer vehicle for all her future crews,” he tweeted.

SpaceX said it will make sure, through the accident investigation, that the Dragon is one of the safest spacecraft ever built for astronauts. The California-based company released few details, though, on the accident itself and how it might impact future flights.

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Federal oversight authorities warned NASA last year that more delays could leave US astronauts stranded if the new capsules were not ready to fly in 2019. Pixabay

Former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, now with Syracuse University, said via email Monday that it’s “too early to tell what the implications may be.”

SpaceX and Boeing

NASA has not launched astronauts from Cape Canaveral since the last shuttle flight in 2011, instead paying for rides on Russian rockets. The space agency turned the job over to two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to build new capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.

ALSO READ: Spacecraft Test Runs into Serious Problems, Smoke All Over SpaceX in Florida

Earlier this month, NASA announced major delays for test flights of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule. The initial trip to the space station, without astronauts, is targeted for August, with the first Starliner crew potentially flying by year’s end.

NASA stressed that next week’s launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo capsule remains on track. The supply ship is set to blast off from Cape Canaveral on April 30. SpaceX has been making deliveries to the space station since 2012. The crew Dragon is a much-enhanced version of the cargo version. (VOA)