The space agency has tentatively approved SpaceX’s approach, known as “load and go.” “We came to the conclusion that this was an acceptable risk that we were willing to take,” said Patrick G. Forrester, chief of NASA’s astronaut office.
Other issues still to be resolved before a crewed flight include certification of the parachutes and fixing a design issue with the thrusters where pieces can break off if they get too cold.
Russia, the main partner on the International Space Station, also raised concerns that the Crew Dragon did not have a backup system to steer the capsule away if the main computer were to fail. But on Thursday, NASA officials said they had managed to allay those worries by adding precautionary measures.
If there are additional delays, NASA may buy more Soyuz seats from the Russians.
When the Obama administration announced the beginnings of the commercial crew program in 2009, NASA already had plans to develop a much more expensive rocket, the Ares I, as part of a project to send astronauts back to the moon. But the NASA rockets, and the moon program, were canceled.
The Trump administration is again interested in the moon, but is keeping the commercial approach.
By themselves, the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft do not push NASA any farther out into the solar systems; both are designed only to go to low-Earth orbit, the same trip that the Soyuz has been making for decades.
The hope that commercial rides to space could spur a new space industry has also not yet materialized. However, NASA appears to be applying a similar approach to new programs, including a call to private companies to develop spacecraft to take astronauts to the surface of the moon. That could lead to unexpected outcomes in the space business.
“I think we’re at a Wright brothers moment for commercial space,” Phil Larson, who served as a space adviser in the Obama White House and is now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said in an interview. “We’ll have a new fleet of American spacecraft. Anything is possible, and I think markets will show up.”