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NASA boss to tour SpaceX factory after feud over capsule delays

Credit: REUTERS/CALLAGHAN O'HARE

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk opened up his private rocket factory to the top official of NASA on Thursday for a tour and progress report on the company's long-delayed Crew Dragon astronaut capsule.

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES, Oct 10 (Reuters) - SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk opened up his private rocket factory to the top official of NASA on Thursday for a tour and progress report on the company's long-delayed Crew Dragon astronaut capsule.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is paying commercial launch contractors SpaceX and Boeing Co BA.N $6.8 billion to build rocket-and-capsule systems to return astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil for the first time since America's space shuttle program ended in 2011.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine's visit to SpaceX headquarters in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne and a joint news conference slated for the afternoon come as SpaceX works to overcome key technical challenges on the Crew Dragon.

It also follows a rare public spat over the last two weeks between Musk and the NASA chief, who bristled at Musk on Twitter for celebrating an unrelated milestone achieved on SpaceX's deep-space Starship rocket while completion of the Crew Dragon project remained delayed.

"It's time to deliver," Bridenstine said.

Musk quickly shot back during a series of interviews after his Starship event, at one point citing a rival NASA moon rocket dubbed the Space Launch System that is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. He also told CNN "most of the work" left to complete on Crew Dragon was related to "a long series of safety reviews" by NASA.

Musk then tweeted on Tuesday that testing for Crew Dragon would be done in 10 weeks, a bold claim given NASA's design and safety concerns, some of which were first detailed by Reuters earlier this year. SpaceX has also never flown humans into orbit, only cargo.

Apart from a display of unity, SpaceX and NASA are expected to give an update on Thursday on the Crew Dragon launch schedule and technical difficulties, including concerns over parachutes and an investigation into an explosion during a capsule ground test in April.

Both the Boeing and SpaceX capsules have been beset by delays and testing mishaps that have prevented either company from achieving goals for manned orbital missions in 2019.

RACE TO THE STATION

SpaceX successfully launched an unpiloted Crew Dragon in March to the International Space Station, a $100 billion orbital research laboratory that flies about 250 miles (400 km) above Earth, although the date for its debut manned mission remains uncertain after repeated slips.

NASA has stopped providing scheduling updates until it names a new associate administrator of human spaceflight operations, agency spokesman Matthew Rydin said.

NASA and SpaceX have had a strained relationship at times in recent years. SpaceX's rise to become a dominant launch services provider over the last decade has been fueled in part by NASA contracts and the agency's transformative strategy to buy services from private companies rather than owning the technology itself.

The top executive for Boeing's rival Starliner program, John Mulholland, told a conference on Wednesday that a key test of an abort system that propels astronauts to safety during an emergency was slated for Nov. 4, while its unpiloted orbital test flight was set for Dec. 17.

Under that time frame, the first Starliner manned mission is all but certain to slip into 2020.

With no current means of flying astronauts into orbit from U.S. soil, NASA has been paying Russia about $80 million per ticket for rides to the space station.

Four days after Musk and Bridenstine initially exchanged public criticism, Bridenstine said on Twitter that the two spoke by phone, which appeared to open the door for Thursday's visit.

"I'm looking forward to visiting @SpaceX in Hawthorne next Thursday," Bridenstine said on Twitter. "More to come soon!"

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles Writing and additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait and Rosalba O'Brien)

((Eric.m.johnson@thomsonreuters.com; +1 206 707 1218; Follow me on Twitter @ByEricMJohnson;))

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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