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SpaceX and Boeing inch toward sending people to space from U.S. soil

Boeing's Starliner during a test of its abort system in New Mexico
Boeing's Starliner during a test of its abort system in New Mexico. Photo: NASA

SpaceX and Boeing are working to clear a number of safety hurdles before the end of the year ahead of launching their first crews of astronauts to the International Space Station.

Why it matters: The two companies have been tasked with flying people to space from U.S. soil, ending NASA's reliance on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft for transportation to the station.

  • The Commercial Crew Program has been plagued by technical delays and budget shortfalls, but Boeing and SpaceX are now expected to fly astronauts aboard their Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft for the first time early next year.

State of play: On Monday, Boeing launched a successful test of its abort system designed to pull astronauts to safety in the event of a rocket failure at launch.

  • As the capsule was descending to Earth after the engine firing, one of three parachutes didn't deploy, which didn't invalidate the test, according to NASA.
  • For its part, SpaceX has performed 13 successful tests of its new parachutes for its Crew Dragon.
  • SpaceX has tested an updated version of its abort system on the ground since the company made changes to it after a failure on a test stand in April. It is also expected to perform a full ground test and an in-flight abort test in the coming weeks.

What's next: Neither Boeing nor SpaceX is expected to fly people to orbit before the end of the year, as initially expected. Instead, NASA now estimates that both could fly as early as the start of 2020.

  • Boeing's uncrewed test flight of its system is expected to launch Dec. 17, with its first crewed flight expected sometime after that.
  • SpaceX already completed an uncrewed test flight to the station, but it’s not yet clear when the company will fly its first crew to orbit.

Go deeper: SpaceX and Boeing unlikely to launch astronauts to orbit this year