From the early years of this decade, NASA astronauts have had to rely on Roscosmos’s Soyuz spacecraft to travel to and from Earth’s orbit, ever since the US space agency retired its Space Shuttle program. However, that era will soon be over.

NASA wants US-based private spacecraft companies to end the agency’s dependence and it has been supporting their development through its Commercial Crew Program, The Indian Express reported. Currently NASA spends US$85 million per seat to fly US astronauts on Russian spacecraft.

Back in 2014, the US space agency awarded US$2.6 billion to SpaceX and US$4.2 billion to Boeing towards finishing their astronaut carrying space capsules.

The capsules which are called Crew Dragon by SpaceX and the CST-100 Starliner by Boeing, were expected to be ready by the end of 2017, according to a report by Space.com. The deadline could not be met, however.

Crew Dragon is now nearly ready, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently said at an event held at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif.

“We are getting very close, and we’re very confident that, in the first part of next year, we will be ready to launch American astronauts on American rockets,” the report said, quoting Bridenstine. He added that the first quarter (January-March) of next year (2020) could be a realistic target for the Demo-2 mission.

The test flight is going to carry NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to and from the International Space Station (ISS) followed by operational, contracted missions to ISS, the Space.com report said.

However, Bridenstine stressed the particular deadline will hold only when things go as per the plan with the development of Crew Dragon.

An illustration of the Crew Dragon Capsule. NASA wants US-based private spacecraft companies to end the agency’s dependence on Russia. Credit: SpaceX.

Earlier this year, SpaceX had conducted a series of tests on the Crew Dragon spacecraft which flew Demo-1 test flight.

During the April 20 test, the smaller thrusters worked as expected but an instant before the planned ignition of the abort motors the vehicle suddenly exploded, in what Bridenstine then called “a catastrophic failure.”

The Crew Dragon vehicle has four thruster pods that each have two Draco thrusters and two SuperDraco thrusters. The Draco thrusters are used for in-orbit maneuvering and to perform reentry burns. The SuperDraco thrusters are used for emergency aborts and had originally been designed to also offer propulsive landing capabilities.

The explosion was blamed on a leaky valve in a propellant pressurization system, company officials said.

As a result of the mishap, SpaceX revised the Crew Dragon abort propulsion system and the company started rigorous re-testing of the new design.

Apart from this, there have also been issues with the capsule’s parachute system. The company has decided to make a switch to the “Mark 3” parachute design from “Mark 2.” The Mark 3 design has much stronger lines and a better load-distributing stitching pattern.

“We’re hopeful to have the first successful Mark 3 drop test within a week or two, and then there’ll be a steady cadence of tests thereafter,” the report said quoting Musk as saying. The company should achieve that milestone by the end of the year if all goes well, Musk added.

These two issues — the abort propulsion system and the parachutes, are the only things that put the deadline at risk however Musk stressed that “there may be other things that we discover,” the billionaire said.

“If there’s some way just to make it go faster, I would make it go faster,” Musk said of Crew Dragon development.

Earlier in the year, the Crew Dragon spacecraft was launched for the first time on an uncrewed test mission. The vehicle was recovered successfully after a short stay docked to the International Space Station.

Apart from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing is preparing its Starliner for its first uncrewed test flight to ISS, which is targeted sometime during mid-December.

According to Space.com, the Starliner is similar in shape to the Apollo spacecraft, but its electronics are half a century more advanced.

The spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven astronauts, with additional cargo also possible if fewer astronauts fly in a particular mission. The gumdrop-shaped spacecraft will first fly into space aboard Atlas V rockets.

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft will first fly into space aboard Atlas V rockets. Credit: Boeing.