According to NASA flight schedule published on 12 December, first flight for manned version of Dragon spacecraft is delayed. It is second delayed test flight under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program – in May Boeing announced about delay with their CST-100 spacecraft.
Surely it is not situation, which could be called desirable both by NASA and its contractors. Boeing and SpaceX now suffer delays and NASA contract with Roscosmos for delivering astronauts to International Space Station is ending on December 2018. On May it was confirmed that first flight of CST-100 was postponed to 2017 with first manned flight in 2018. Now we know, that SpaceX also will conduct manned flight in 2018 with unmanned test in 2017. According some sources, problems with schedule in case of SpaceX are connected with disaster of Falcon-9 FT on September 1, 2016 before planned launch of Amos-6. Of course it is possible, but problems with launch vehicle can be also only partial explanation. It is worth to remind, that on 31 October 2016 Chairman of International Space Station Advisory Committee, Thomas Stafford, put under the question idea of fueling Falcon-9 FT with extremely chilled propellant during manned missions in future. This also should be taken under consideration if we would like to evaluate reasons for delay of SpaceX, because fueling rocket with crewed vehicle on the top is against all safety rules in NASA. It should be put under the question, why SpaceX decided to establishing refueling procedure for launch vehicle designed for crewed Dragon, which was clearly not complying with NASA rules for manned flights; also it is quite interesting why NASA allow to this for such long time, without any known sign of protest. At the moment all the reasons of explosion from September 1 were not recognized, but still explanation based on issues with refueling are considered as potential reason. Opinion of International Space Station Advisory Committee should not be surprising – safety of the crew is always on the first place. Continuing test flights with silent assumption, that investigation on disaster of launch vehicle for crewed version of Dragon will be positive and will not show any fault of launch vehicle, but against important safety rules is not reasonable.
For the moment NASA assumes, that Boeing and SpaceX will be able to deliver men to ISS in 2018. With cost of single place in Soyuz at $82 million, contract with Roscosmos is still present in budget and is rather painful expense for Agency. CST-100 and crewed Dragon should perform at least one unmanned flight and one mission with crew to acquire certification for regular flights. In case of any serious problems during unmanned flight, crewed mission will be moved away in time and it is possible, that NASA will be forced to negotiate with Roscosmos to use Soyuz without previously signed contract. Of course it will be a problem, because Roscosmos is not keeping Soyuz capsules on the stock and Corporation claims that two years are necessary to manufacture additional capsules. But capabilities of Russian space industry are well known. Probably it could be possible to reduce this time and manufacture Soyuz faster if it would be necessary for Russian interests. It is worth to remind, that for keeping ISS on orbit at least one Russian and one Americam crew member should be onboard to maintain both Russian and American segment.