NASA: Sequester could delay U.S. plan to launch astronauts by 2017

After SpaceX's successful mission, another commercial test flight set for April

NASA and its commercial allies are on track to launch astronauts into space from U.S. soil by 2017, unless the government's sequester delays their efforts.

"We're still marching along on our 2017 initial flight for a crewed vehicle," said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a teleconference Thursday about the recent SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station.

"So far, we don't see any significant impact with the rest of this fiscal year, but if we can't get out of this sequester condition, it could slow down our progress on a commercial crew... We already are talking to our partners about delays in milestones if we don't get the funding that we want," Bolden said.

The sequester did not affect the SpaceX mission, which ended with a successful splashdown of the Dragon capsule on Tuesday, Bolden said.

The Dragon ferried about 1,200 pounds of supplies and scientific experiments to the International Space Station earlier this month. After 23 days docked with the orbiter, the spacecraft returned to Earth, carrying finished experiments and space station trash.

Bolden said he doesn't foresee any delays or problems for NASA caused by the sequester, a set of automatic spending cuts that are set to last until 2021, for this year. However, he said that could change if the sequester goes on longer than this year.

"It could have downstream impact on everything we do," he added.

Bolden also used the teleconference as a reminder about the importance of a commercial cargo program.

He noted that Orbital Sciences Corp., a Dulles, Va.-based company that specializes in the manufacture and launch of satellites, is building and testing a new rocket and cargo spacecraft for its own resupply missions to the space station.

Orbital Sciences is scheduled to launch its first test flight in mid-April. A demonstration mission is planned for this summer and its first official resupply mission is set for the fall.

SpaceX, the Hawthorne, Calif., company that completed the recent mission, is expected to launch its third official resupply mission later this year.

Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, said during the teelconference that the company is on track to unveil a spacecraft later this year that could land on solid ground, as opposed to the Dragon capsule, which splashed down in the ocean.

"We're working with NASA on an unveiling," he added. "We started off landing in water because it was the easiest thing to do, and we really didn't know what we were doing at the beginning. We didn't want to take any unnecessary risks. Now we want to push the envelope and take the tech to where it hasn't been before."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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