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NASA aims for first manned SpaceX mission in first-quarter 2020

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HAWTHORNE, Calif. (Reuters) – SpaceX's new astronaut capsule Crew Dragon will be ready for its first manned orbit flight in the first quarter of next year, provided that "everything goes according to plan" in upcoming tests, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine on Thursday. .

The revised deadline signaled that NASA believes SpaceX is putting the Crew Dragon project back on track after an explosion during an April ground test and technical challenges with its re-entry parachute system.

Bridenstine said the successful development of the capsule was critical to achieving NASA's top priority – the "launch of US astronauts on US rockets from US soil" for the first time since the shuttle program ended in 2011.

The NASA administrator spoke to reporters at the end of a visit to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, just outside Los Angeles, where Chief Executive Elon Musk led him on a tour of the large factory.

Their joint appearance by a giant glass-enclosed "clean room" where engineers were working on a Crew Dragon marked a show of unity after a rare public fight over project delays.

NASA and SpaceX had previously planned to launch Crew Dragon on an initial test flight, transporting two astronauts to the International Space Station in 2019.

The revised timeline depends on a series of system tests that SpaceX expects to perform by the end of the year, Bridenstine said.

This includes a high-altitude test of an in-flight abortion system designed to propel the crew capsule to safety in the event of a rocket failure in orbit path.

The schedule also includes at least 10 more "drop tests" in the air to assess the resilience and performance of the parachutes used to slow the capsule down into the ocean after returning to the atmosphere from space.

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"If all went according to plan, it would be the first quarter of next year," Bridenstine said when asked how long the capsule would be ready to orbit astronauts. He was quick to add that the new timeline could slip again.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine (E) and SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk shake hands after a visit to SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, USA, October 10, 2019. REUTERS / Gene Blevins

"We will not take any undue risk," he said, alongside Musk and the two astronauts aboard the crew dragon – Doug Hurley and Bob Benkoe.

Bridenstine also praised SpaceX for its "fail fast and fix" approach to spacecraft development, a spirit that he said differs from the cultures of other NASA contractors.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is paying commercial launch companies SpaceX and Boeing Co (BANKING) $ 6.8 billion to build rocket and capsule systems, enabling NASA to resume human space travel with US-made hardware.

So far, SpaceX has never put humans into orbit, just cargo. But the company successfully launched an unmanned Crew Dragon for the International Space Station in March.

Musk said overcoming problems with reentry parachutes proved to be especially challenging.

"It's very hard engineering work to hit the parachutes," said Musk, stating that the Crew Dragon parachutes will be at least twice as safe as those used on NASA's Apollo lunar missions.

He hoped that "testing is complete and hardware in Cape (Canaveral) by the end of December."

Boeing's rival Starliner chief executive John Mulholland said on Wednesday that his own key test of an abortion system is scheduled for November 4, while his pilotless orbital flight was scheduled for December 17. Starliner's first manned mission is almost certain by 2020.

NASA is currently paying Russia about $ 80 million per seat for travel to the space station.

Bridenstine said the agency "is still buying seats" for travel aboard Soyuz of Russia as an "insurance policy" against future delays in the development of crew capsules in the US.

While providing few concrete details about his joint investigation into an explosion during a Crew Dragon abortion propulsion test in April, Musk said these setbacks were inevitable in rigorous testing of complex systems.

NASA aims for first manned SpaceX mission in first-quarter 2020Slideshow (7 Images)

Bridenstine's visit came after he and Musk had clashed in the past two weeks, with NASA chief blaming Musk on Twitter for celebrating a milestone in the SpaceX space rocket, while the Crew Dragon project was still running late.

Bridenstine sought to bury the ax on Thursday, saying he was just "signaling" to SpaceX and other NASA contractors that "we need more realism embedded in our development deadlines."

Steve Gorman reporting in Los Angeles; writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Paul Tait, Rosalba O'Brien and Richard Pullin edition

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