This was supposed to be the year. After nearly a decade of planning, NASA astronauts would fly to space on launch systems built by a commercial company hired to do the job the space agency no longer could, not after the Space Shuttle program ended. For years, the United States had paid Russia to send its spacefarers to the International Space Station. Now the country would do it on its own again, from its own launchpads.
This probably isn’t going to be that year.
The effort, known as Commercial Crew, is behind schedule, slowed by a mix of funding shortfalls, technical challenges, safety concerns, and other factors. NASA might have to buy more seats on Russia’s Soyuz system to make up for the lag. SpaceX and Boeing, the companies in this effort, have certainly made significant progress. In March, SpaceX’s astronaut capsule, carrying a mannequin in a spacesuit, flew a seemingly flawless mission to the space station and back. The mood was buoyant, and Elon Musk and Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, were all smiles as they toured the launchpad in Florida in hard hats.
But barely two months later, the same capsule exploded during a test on the ground. And over the past few days, Musk and Bridenstine have been embroiled in a tense public exchange about the progress of their shared effort.