Pulses quicken at NASA as SpaceX gets closer to crewed launches and Russia readies the next Soyuz

If only there was some way the agency could unwind a bit. Or maybe not

While NASA celebrated another successful landing on Mars, the agency spent the past seven days dealing with some issues considerably closer to home in the latest round-up of all things space.

NASA: We won't have what he's smoking

The week kicked off with The Washington Post giving Elon Musk that most rarest of gifts: publicity he'd probably prefer to do without. The report came as NASA announced plans to take a very close look at the workplace culture of its two commercial crew contractors: Boeing and SpaceX.

The Post reckoned that NASA was annoyed by Musk's infamous podcast moment, where he relaxed with the assistance of some marijuana and a shot of whiskey. The US space agency, according to WaPo sources, did not like that behaviour one little bit. It is more than happy to fling cash at its contractors regardless of delays and cost overruns. But kicking back for some me-time? That calls for a full-on investigation.

A NASA spokesperson, who wasn't keen on spilling the beans on what prompted the review, said it would "ensure the companies are meeting NASA's requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment".

SpaceX is likely to feel a little aggrieved. After all, it has managed to create a reusable rocket in less time than it has taken NASA to work out how to dump its own reusable rocket engines into the ocean and it (and competitor Boeing) will launch crewed missions quite some time before NASA manages the same trick.

While closer scrutiny to ensure crew safety is to be applauded, NASA should also take a look at what some portions of the agency have been smoking themselves. The Orion capsule, first announced back in 2004 as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (first flight in 2008 – those were the days), is unlikely to fly a crewed mission before 2023, and the Space Launch System (SLS) due to fire it into space has suffered delay after delay.

It's a date! The latest schedule for NASA's commercial crew will see the first unmanned launch on 7 January. Maybe

Assuming NASA's workplace sniffer dogs don't cause too much of a distraction, SpaceX and Boeing are feeling confident about getting astros into orbit.

First up will be SpaceX, with the launch of its uncrewed Demo-1 mission to the International Space Station planned for 7 January 2019. The mission will lift off from the former Shuttle and Apollo pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

The NASA administrator stressed in a tweet that the 7 January date was not set in stone, and could change based on factors such as the range or ISS availability.

The Crew variant of the Dragon 2 capsule will demonstrate on-orbit and docking operations before landing. SpaceX must then test the in-flight abort capabilities of the system before shoving 'nauts into the thing in June for a crewed test. Boeing will follow a little later, with its uncrewed test in March and a crew taking flight in August.

If all goes to plan (and goodness, it hasn't up until now – the first flights were due in 2015) the first operational missions should take place in August and December 2019.

Russia to fly a trio of 'nauts to the ISS on 3 December

While NASA has decided to take a very close look at the workplace practices of its US contractors, it has given the nod to Russia to send up Anne McClain, Oleg Kononenko and David Saint-Jacques onboard the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft, less than two months after MS-10 brought its own crew back to Earth with a bump following an in-flight failure of the launcher.

At the time, NASA said "a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident will be conducted", which Roscosmos has done in record time, pointing the finger at a sensor bent during assembly.

The trio will have a relatively civilised ride to the ISS following launch on 3 December, taking only six hours to reach the orbiting platform where they will kick off a six-and-a-half-month mission. SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Dragon cargo freighter the following day, which will arrive two days later on 6 December. ®

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