Delayed but undaunted by a partial government shutdown, Elon Musk has announced that SpaceX's first commercial crew mission is "about a month away." While the flight will lack a crew, the company hopes that a successful launch will provide a crucial demonstration of its ability to send humans into space.
The launch was supposed to take place on January 17, but the government shutdown has made such a scenario unlikely. Around 90 percent of all NASA employees have been furloughed in the shutdown, slowing down the Agency's actions to a crawl.
But for both SpaceX and NASA, the launch is critical. Ars Technica that several government officials are working without pay to make sure the launch from Florida's Complex 39A goes off without a hitch. For SpaceX a successful launch would place the company firmly in the driver's seat in the race for commercial space travel, ahead of competitors like Blue Origin or Virgin Space.
For NASA the launch would further confirm the success of its long-standing partnership with Musk, who spent much of 2018 facing one controversy after another. It would also give the agency another venue for launching its own astronauts into space as it continues to work on its prototype .
All rocket launches carry an inherent risk. The Crew Dragon 2 launch will hold a rare burden though–the first time a Falcoln 9 rocket and a Crew Dragon 2 spacecraft are launched together in this configuration. Being the first of anything is never easy, and a launch of this complexity is especially difficult.
Musk has acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead, saying that work leading up to the mission has been "extremely intense."
As an organization, NASA is generally risk adverse. NASA, which is currently SpaceX's biggest customer, strongly encourages all contractors to have one-in-230, or lower, probability of "loss of mission." Speaking anonymously to Ars, NASA employees said that the sort of hype Musk is building up around even a hypothetical human launch is "not helpful."
But hype or no, first launches are risky. If this launch goes off, then after that will come a second launch with real-life astronauts. Astronauts Doug Hurley and Robert Behnken will , which will be a much bigger test. If everyone thing goes right after that, then comes regular commercial spaceflight.