In a sign that astronaut launches from Florida are growing nearer, SpaceX recently leased an Air Force facility where it will prepare Dragon capsules to fly crews to the International Space Station.
The 45th Space Wing said work on the capsule called Crew Dragon or Dragon 2 would take place in Area 59, a former satellite processing facility on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“This summer, they should be receiving their first Dragon 2 capsule, which will directly support NASA and the return of astronauts (launching into orbit) from U.S. soil,” said Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, the Wing commander, at a recent transportation summit in Port Canaveral.
It’s unclear when SpaceX or Boeing will be ready to launch test flights of astronauts under NASA contracts.
The most recent public schedules show unmanned test flights of SpaceX’s Dragon in April and Boeing’s Starliner in August. Test flights with two-person crews would follow in August and November, respectively.
Those dates, however, are considered optimistic and likely to slip, maybe even to 2019.
Until then, NASA will continue to rely exclusively on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS, as it has since the space agency retired the shuttle program in July 2011.
A Global Positioning System satellite launched in early 2016 was the last spacecraft the Air Force readied for flight at Area 59, located near the Skid Strip south of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Industrial Area.
“This GPS IIF-12 satellite represents the end of a legacy as it will be the last of the 61 GPS satellites processed here at CCAFS,” Monteith said then. “This culminates an incredible 27-year legacy at our Area 59 Satellite Processing Facility.”
The Air Force in 2014 announced plans to close the facility as a cost-saving measure and potentially make it available for commercial use.
Overall, Monteith said the Air Force has now leased or licensed over one million square feet of facilities to the commercial sector through the Commercial Space Launch Act.
“Another way that we are breaking down barriers and removing impediments to the growth of the commercial industry,” he said. “At the end of the day, it also benefits the taxpayer.”
NASA also has transferred numerous former shuttle facilities to commercial tenants or government agencies such as the Air Force or Space Florida. They include the lease of historic launch pad 39A to SpaceX, where Falcon 9 rockets are slated to launch the crew-carrying Dragons on their way to the ISS.
On Dec. 15, a Falcon 9 launched a cargo version of the Dragon to the ISS for the 13th time under a NASA resupply contract.That Dragon is targeting a Jan. 13 return to Earth with a Pacific Ocean splashdown.