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17 Commercial Crew Things to Track in 2017

Throughout 2017, NASA and its commercial crew partners, Boeing and SpaceX, will make major steps touching every area of space system development and operations, from completing flight-worthy spacecraft and rockets to putting the finishing touches on launch pads to performing detailed countdown and flight rehearsals.

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Here is a look at 17 things you should track for in 2017:

  1. Structural Test Article: Boeing begins 2017 with its CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article at the company’s Huntington Beach, California, facility for testing that will push, pull and apply pressure to the spacecraft, qualifying that the design will be able to withstand the intense conditions encountered during spaceflights.
  2. Structural Qualification: SpaceX is on pace to complete structural qualification of the Crew Dragon capsule and trunk in early 2017. The company built the Crew Dragon Qualification Vehicle to prove its design will hold up to the rigors of spaceflight.
  3. Starliner Prototype: Boeing will wrap up assembly of its Starliner prototype, Spacecraft 1, which is slated to go through ground verification testing before flying in a pad abort test from White Sands, New Mexico. Production of two additional Starliners will ramp up in 2017 in preparation for two test flights – first without a crew to the International Space Station and then with one Boeing and one NASA astronaut on board. All three spacecraft are being manufactured in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  4. Complete Manufacturing: SpaceX also will complete manufacturing of three Crew Dragons that are currently in early phases of assembly. These spacecraft will perform Demonstration Mission 1, flight test without crew, Demonstration Mission 2, flight test with a crew aboard, and the company’s first crew rotation mission.
  5. Software Systems: Both companies’ robust autonomous software systems will continue to be put to the test to ensure everything works exactly as planned throughout all phases of the mission.
  6. Starliner Thrusters: The Starliner thrusters – from small maneuvering jets to large engines that would fire in an emergency to push the spacecraft and astronauts out of danger – will be qualified and acceptance tested in the fall during the service module hot fire test.
  7. Draco and SuperDraco: The Draco and SuperDraco thrusters for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are on pace to complete static-fire qualification testing in the first few months of 2017. SpaceX produces both thrusters in-house. The smaller Draco thrusters maneuver the spacecraft while it’s in orbit and provide small adjustments. The SuperDracos, which are 3D printed, are much larger and produce enough thrust to lift the Crew Dragon out of danger in case of an abort situation. The company expects to complete propulsion system validation testing by demonstrating capability in all phases of flight using a dedicated module by the second half of 2017.
  8. Parachute Tests: Boeing will start off 2017 with its parachute qualification test series in New Mexico and more advanced drop testing at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Boeing plans to place an instrument-laden human-like test dummy inside its mockup for drop tests that will verify that the Starliner’s airbags will absorb enough of the force of landing to keep astronauts safe. The landing tests will be performed using a gantry that drops the mockup onto a dirt pad.
  9. Parachute Development: SpaceX plans to finish development testing of its Crew Dragon parachute systems in early 2017. The Crew Dragon will use a four-parachute configuration for landing in the water. The company plans to complete qualification testing of the parachutes after the summer.
  10. Spacesuits: Boeing and SpaceX each designed their own spacesuits for flight, based on the systems of their respective spacecraft and NASA’s stringent requirements. Throughout 2017, both companies will subject their suits to rigorous testing in multiple circumstances that might be encountered in space. SpaceX has completed spacesuit development testing and will build the training and flight suits for its crewed demonstration flight and first crew rotation mission after astronauts are assigned to missions. The spacesuits are not designed for spacewalking, but are meant to fill the role of the orange partial-pressure suits astronauts wore during space shuttle launches and returns. They are meant to keep air flowing to the astronaut in case of depressurization and meet a host of special capabilities.
  11. Starliner Factory: Boeing will add to its Starliner manufacturing complex at Kennedy early in 2017 when it opens a Hazardous Processing Facility that will allow for the safe fueling of Starliner spacecraft with maneuvering system propellants before the spacecraft is taken to the launch pad for liftoff.
  12. Crew Access Tower: Work is nearing completion on a new structure built specifically for the needs of astronauts climbing into Boeing’s Starliner as it stands atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at Space Launch Complex 41 in Florida. In 2017, the 200-foot-tall Crew Access Tower and Crew Access Arm will see installation and testing of emergency escape systems. ULA’s complex is one of the most active on the Space Coast, and construction of the systems needed to support crew launches has taken place between launches.
  13. Launch Complex 39A: SpaceX has overhauled the historic Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy and built new support structures for the company’s line of Falcon rockets. The Crew Access Arm, currently under construction, will be connected in the spring to provide a bridge from the fixed service structure to the Crew Dragon spacecraft so astronauts can board before launch. The launch pad will be put to the test when SpaceX launches its Falcon 9 from the pad in early 2017. It will mark the first flight off of Pad 39A since the final space shuttle mission in 2011.
  14. Atlas V Production: United Launch Alliance will continue production of the two Atlas V rockets that will lift Starliners into orbit on flight tests with and without crews aboard. Building its rockets at a plant in Decatur, Alabama, the company will begin building the boosters for operational Starliner missions, as well.
  15. Falcon 9 Production: SpaceX will build up the Falcon 9 rockets that will launch Crew Dragons into orbit for the flight tests of its systems. SpaceX builds its rockets, Merlin engines and Crew Dragon spacecraft at the company’s factory and headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
  16. Flight Test: SpaceX is slated to make its first flight test – without a crew – in November 2017. Flying to the space station using its automated guidance and navigation systems, the Crew Dragon will dock there on its own and remain for a time before detaching and parachuting back to Earth and landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral. The mission will be a dress rehearsal for a later flight test that will include astronauts.
  17. Space Station: The advances are not limited to Earth, either. Astronauts on the International Space Station will continue modifications in 2017 tailored for new vehicles, including commercial crew spacecraft.