NASA boss emphasizes astronaut safety as he visits SpaceX factory
HAWTHORNE, Calif. (Reuters) - SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk opened up his private rocket factory to the top official of NASA on Thursday for a tour and progress report on the long-delayed Crew Dragon astronaut capsule the company is building for America's space agency.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is paying commercial launch contractors SpaceX and Boeing Co <BA.N> $6.8 billion to build rocket-and-capsule systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil for the first time since America's space shuttle program ended in 2011.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine's visit to SpaceX headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne come as SpaceX works to overcome key technical challenges on the Crew Dragon.
"Elon and I are in strong agreement that whatever it takes to make sure (U.S. astronauts) are safe is what we are focused on," Bridenstine told reporters gathered steps from a Crew Dragon clean room inside the factory.
The visit follows a rare public spat over the last two weeks between Musk and the NASA chief, who bristled at Musk on Twitter for celebrating an unrelated milestone achieved on SpaceX's deep-space Starship rocket while completion of the Crew Dragon project remained delayed.
Musk quickly shot back during a series of interviews, at one point citing a rival NASA moon rocket dubbed the Space Launch System that is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. He also told CNN "most of the work" left to complete on Crew Dragon was related to "a long series of safety reviews" by NASA.
Musk then tweeted on Tuesday that testing for Crew Dragon would be done in 10 weeks, a bold claim given NASA's design and safety concerns, some of which were first detailed by Reuters earlier this year. SpaceX has also never flown humans into orbit, only cargo.
Both the Boeing and SpaceX capsules have been beset by delays and testing mishaps that have prevented either company from achieving goals for manned orbital missions in 2019.
RACE TO THE STATION
SpaceX successfully launched an unpiloted Crew Dragon in March to the International Space Station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, although the date for its debut manned mission remains uncertain after repeated slips.
Bridenstine told reporters on Thursday that a high-altitude abort test of a system designed to propel the Crew Dragon astronauts to safety in the event of an emergency on the way to orbit would happen in "short order," though he did not provide a specific timeframe.
NASA and SpaceX have had a strained relationship at times in recent years. SpaceX's rise to become a dominant launch services provider for satellites over the last decade has been fueled in part by NASA contracts and the agency's transformative strategy to buy services from private companies rather than owning the technology itself.
The top executive for Boeing's rival Starliner program, John Mulholland, told a conference on Wednesday that its own key test of an abort system that propels astronauts to safety during an emergency was slated for Nov. 4, while its unpiloted orbital test flight was set for Dec. 17.
Under that time frame, the first Starliner manned mission is all but certain to slip into 2020.
With no current means of flying astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil, NASA has been paying Russia about $80 million per ticket for rides to the space station.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait and Rosalba O'Brien)
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