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SpaceX and Boeing unlikely to launch astronauts to orbit this year

SpaceX's uncrewed Crew Dragon mission at launch
SpaceX's uncrewed Crew Dragon mission at launch. Photo: SpaceX

Boeing and SpaceX — tasked with building spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA — are not likely to launch people to orbit before the end of the year.

Why it matters: The Commercial Crew program is tasked with ending NASA's reliance on Russia's Soyuz rocket but has faced technical delays and budget shortfalls for years, leaving the space agency dependent on Russia's spaceflight capabilities.

Details: SpaceX suffered a setback earlier this year when one of its Crew Dragon vehicles exploded during a ground test.

  • Elon Musk expects the company will be able to fly people to the station in 3–4 months, according to CNN.
  • NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine recently said that is a stretch.
  • Boeing's first flight of its Starliner to the space station is also months away.

Between the lines: NASA wants to give SpaceX and Boeing flexibility in their flight schedules in the name of safety.

  • "We need them to fly, but more importantly, we need them to fly safely," NASA's Kirk Shireman said during a press briefing Friday.

The intrigue: NASA currently spends more than $80 million per seat for astronauts to fly to the station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets, with the final purchased flight expected to launch in March 2020.

  • If NASA wants to buy more Soyuz seats, it will need to do so before December 2020, when the agency will be barred from buying new seats from Russia by Congress unless granted a waiver.

What to watch: Bridenstine recently questioned whether SpaceX is focused on the Commercial Crew program and is set to visit the company's headquarters in California on Thursday to check in on its progress.