Congress warned of delays to SpaceX and Boeing manned missions

The Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress in which it warned legislators there is a strong likelihood neither SpaceX nor Boeing will be ready to fly astronauts to the International Space Station prior to 2019. Both had originally planned to begin crewed ISS missions in 2018. Because of the delay, the GAO is advising NASA to come up with backup plans for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS after 2018.

At present, the only transportation available is aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket, for which the fee is $80 million per person. NASA has already booked the seats it needs through the end of 2018 but the GAO report means it will need to start reserving seats for 2019 as well. It takes three years to complete the booking process, so there is no time to lose.

If SpaceX or Boeing can’t provide space transportation by then, NASA could be faced with a period of time when it has no way to get people up to the ISS or return them to earth. “Without a viable contingency option for ensuring uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, NASA risks not being able to maximize the return on its multibillion dollar investment in the space station,” the GAO report states. NASA says it is in agreement with the report’s findings and that it will have a contingency plan in place by March 13.

The problems for SpaceX center on changes to the Falcon 9 rocket that are underway. Known by the name of Block 5, the upgrades involve five major changes to the rockets. The Verge reports that the GAO is concerned those changes will not be completed and verified by NASA in time for the proposed first unmanned flight of the Dragon space capsule scheduled for later this year. In addition, SpaceX is working to allay fears about cracking in turbine blades that NASA claims constitute an “unacceptable risk” for crewed missions.

Boeing’s troubles are partly centered on the fact that its Atlas V rocket uses Russian made engines. Russia and the United States are not enjoying the warmest of relationships at the moment and NASA is having difficulty getting the information it needs to verify the engines are safe for crewed missions. Boeing is also behind in testing the parachute recovery system for is CST-100 Starliner space capsule.

In the report, the GAO sets forth the complex requirements involved in certifying that a spacecraft is safe for human travelers.

“Before a company’s crew transportation system can be certified by NASA, it must meet two sets of requirements. The ISS program levies a set of 332 requirements that must be met by all visiting spacecraft, whether they are carrying cargo or crew to the station. There are three major areas outlined in the ISS requirements document: 1) interface requirements for both the ISS and the spacecraft; 2) performance requirements for ground systems supporting the spacecraft; and 3) design requirements for spacecraft to ensure safe integration with the ISS.”

In September, 2014, NASA awarded two contracts for Commercial Crew Transportation development — $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to SpaceX. The need for the United States to be able to deliver and retrieve ISS crew members is urgent but urgency cannot be allowed to overrule safety. Perhaps SpaceX or Boeing will make progress faster than the GAO expects and everyone will be able to breath a sigh of relief. Until then, the pressure to complete testing and obtain all necessary certifications is, and will remain, intense. The ISS is expected to remain operational until 2024.

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