SpaceX astronaut capsule test flight set for March

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The crew version of Dragon in space. (Artist's rendering courtesy SpaceX)

A milestone SpaceX test flight could be just a month away. NASA announced this morning that the company is targeting March 2 for an uncrewed first flight of its Dragon crew capsule.

The launch would mark the first orbital flight of a private space taxi.  While SpaceX has been sending supplies to the space station with cargo versions of the Dragon capsule for years, no humans have flown in them yet.

Before that can happen, SpaceX must test the crewed version of the spacecraft, which includes life support systems that the cargo version doesn’t.  The test flight will also check out other on-orbit, docking, and landing operations, plus ground support systems.

The Falcon 9 booster will blast off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39A, which has a new crew access arm installed on the launch tower for eventual manned missions.

The capsule's rocket has already been through a brief test-firing on the launch pad and should be ready for the March mission.  The next step after that will be an in-flight test of the capsule’s abort systems.

SpaceX and Boeing each have contracts with NASA to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, NASA has been paying Russia to launch astronauts to the station and bring them home. 

NASA had expected that the private missions would be flying years ago, but development delays for both contractors have dragged on. The Dragon test was most recently delayed from January.

Boeing also plans to test-fly their capsule, dubbed the Starliner, possibly as soon as April.

Astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley have been tapped for Dragon's first manned flight, currently scheduled for July.

FOX 13 News reported this story from Tampa.