Elon Musk expects his space company's inaugural launch of NASA astronauts is only a few months away.
The SpaceX CEO said on Sunday that the company's first crewed mission will probably be in the second quarter of this year, between the months of April and June. Known as Demo-2, this mission would see two NASA astronauts visit the International Space Station for at least a few days. Musk noted that the rocket and spacecraft needed for the mission are already coming together in Florida.
"We're highly confident the hardware will be ready in Q1, most likely in February but no later than March," Musk said.
Musk made the comments at a press conference after the company completed the in-flight abort test of its Crew Dragon capsule. Musk spoke alongside NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who added that the agency and SpaceX are considering making Demo-2 a longer mission than previously expected.
"If it's going to be a longer duration, then we have to have some additional training for our astronauts to actually be prepared to do things on the International Space Station that we weren't planning to have that initial test crew necessarily do. So we've got to look at that and make a determination," Bridenstine said.
Since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the United States has paid Russia to fly NASA's astronauts to the space station. But now the agency, through SpaceX, is on the cusp of returning that capability to the U.S.
"I think it's really quite profound," Musk said. "I think the United States is a nation of explorers, a distillation of the human spirit of exploration, and it's obviously something that appeals to anyone who has an adventurous bone in their body."
Bridenstine echoed Musk, adding that the U.S. is a nation that wants to lead other countries in exploring space.
"This is a great opportunity for us to once again lead. And this time, when we lead, we're doing it differently than we've ever done it before: NASA is going to be a customer," Bridenstine said.
"We want Elon to have lots of customers," Bridenstine added.
NASA has awarded SpaceX more than $3.1 billion to develop the Crew Dragon capsule since the company won its first contract for the capsule in 2014. Development of Crew Dragon has suffered several setbacks over the years, including getting its parachute system working and a capsule explosion during a test last April.
Once Crew Dragon begins flying, NASA is expected to pay SpaceX about $55 million per astronaut to fly to the space station. In the meantime, Bridenstine said NASA will buy another seat on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft -- which has recently cost as much as $86 million.
SpaceX will have room to fly more astronauts to the space station than just NASA's. However, Musk said he did not have anything to announce in regard to flying private customers.
"I think we need more customers," Bridenstine said. "But on the international front ... we have no shortage of partners that are wanting to have access to space."