NASA's regular crew launches to the International Space Station on private vehicles built by SpaceX and Boeing likely won't begin until summer 2020, warns a new report from the space agency's Office of Inspector General (OIG). The report also criticizes extra NASA payments to Boeing under the program and adds that the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) faces numerous challenges that could reduce space station crew sizes and lead to safety issues.
The agency may have to reduce the size of the crews it sends to the space station, from three U.S. astronauts to one astronaut, during the gap in commercial crew flights. This would diminish space station research, including research for future moon-landing missions that President Donald Trump's administration wants to accomplish in 2024, OIG warned in the 53-page report, released today (Nov. 14). You can read the full report from NASA's OIG here.
The report comes three months after Bill Gerstenmaier, who served as associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate for more than a decade, was reassigned as a special advisor to NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. A successor, Douglas Loverro, was appointed in October to oversee NASA's Artemis and Commercial Crew programs.
Management at NASA received a draft of the report and agreed with the recommendations, and the agency will implement "corrective actions" that are supposed to remedy the situation, the OIG noted in its report. While NASA did not provide exact dates to address the recommendations, the report authors said NASA was responsive to the requests. However, the OIG warned that NASA's practices (as they stand now) may be leading to safety risks due to "schedule pressure."
"NASA officials reported that certification of the contractors' commercial vehicles is driven by safety rather than schedule and noted that they intend to allow Boeing and SpaceX to carry NASA astronauts only when they deem it safe to do so," the OIG wrote.
"That said, we identified numerous capabilities initially planned for testing during the uncrewed test flights that were deferred to the crewed test flights and later in the name of schedule fidelity, deferrals that could adversely impact astronaut safety. As a result, the information presented in our report cautions CCP about the potential safety risks posed by schedule pressure," the report said.
When will SpaceX and Boeing fly?
The Trump's administration, so far, is sticking to its advertised timeline of spring 2020 flights for astronauts.
In remarks at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, near Silicon Valley on the same day as the OIG report release, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence promised a crowd of NASA workers and guests that, before long, "we won't have to hitch a ride with the Russians anymore.
"After years of being out of the launch business, we're going to be back," Pence said. "And before spring arrives next year, we're going to send American astronauts on American rockets from American soil back into space."
The Commercial Crew Program has been ongoing since NASA decided to retire its previous crewed spacecraft, the space shuttle, and replace the older vehicles with modern, commercial space taxis. SpaceX and Boeing both received contracts in 2014 to proceed with building the vehicles, which were then supposed to be ready in 2017.
In the meantime, NASA has been paying Roscosmos (the Russian federal space agency) to fly U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) using Russian Soyuz spacecraft. NASA has been doing that since the shuttle's retirement, in 2011.
Both Boeing and SpaceX have demonstration flights of their spacecraft that may proceed on schedule, but the OIG report was concerned with the operational flights that are meant to largely replace the Soyuz seats that NASA purchases for its astronauts. NASA had hoped that need would diminish soon, but the OIG warned that a tough road is ahead.
"We found that Boeing and SpaceX each faced technical and safety issues that need to be addressed before they are cleared to provide crew transportation to the ISS," said Ridge Bowman, director of the NASA OIG Space Operations Directorate, in a statement posted on YouTube today (Nov. 14).
Space station crew size drop
The OIG found that regular crewed missions on SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's Starliner won't happen before summer 2020. The report also found that NASA crew sizes will need to drop from three astronauts on the U.S. segment of the ISS to a single astronaut. (A typical space station crew consists of six astronauts, including Russians, Americans, and astronauts from other partner nations and space agencies.)
"The program will continue to be challenged to establish realistic launch dates in the future," Bowman explained. "NASA likely will face a reduction in the number of crew aboard the U.S. segment of the ISS from three to one, beginning in spring 2020, given schedule delays in the Commercial Crew Program coupled with a reduction in the frequency of Soyuz flights."
Bowman said NASA's options are "limited" to close the gap in crew-travel capacity. But some ideas could include purchasing more Soyuz seats — if they are still available at this late date — or extending the missions of U.S. astronauts who fly on the ISS. A typical astronaut flies for six months, but already some astronauts have been flying for longer. That includes Christina Koch, who will be the first woman to spend nearly a year in space.
If flight opportunities diminish, NASA will have to slow down its science on the ISS. A portion of each crewmember's time is taken up with operational and urgent matters such as cleaning and maintenance. Science is possible only if these other tasks are taken care of. The ISS is supposed to serve as a proving ground for spacesuits and life-support systems ahead of the Artemis missions, as well as an avenue for expanding low-Earth manufacturing, two priorities of the Trump administration. Several senators recently recommended that the space station's lifetime be extended to 2030 from 2024, in part to continue manufacturing in orbit.
NASA overpaid Boeing
Bowman's group also found that NASA paid Boeing an additional $287.2 million above the company's fixed contract prices to "address a potential 18-month gap in crew access to the ISS" for flights expected in 2019, Bowman said. The impetus was a 13-month delay in Boeing completing its ISS design certification review.
The OIG, while allowing that hindsight makes the decision easy to criticize today, deemed the payment unnecessary, because a crew gap was not anticipated for that time. The office found that at least $187 million of the price increase was an unnecessary cost.
Other recommendations from the report include:
Recommendation 1: Creating a realistic timeline for commercial crew astronaut flights to the ISS.
Recommendation 2: Addressing "safety-critical technical issues" to make sure the crewed flights fly safely.
Recommendation 3: Negotiating with Congress (and other stakeholders) to extend the current legal waiver allowing NASA to pay Russia for Soyuz seats.
Recommendation 4: Working with Roscosmos for solutions to address the gap in commercial crew vehicles, such as purchasing more seats, extending Soyuz spacecraft dockings beyond 200 days to allow for longer crew stays and increasing the pace of Soyuz launches (which currently happen every three months).
Recommendation 5: Closely examining future commercial crew purchases to make sure they align with government contracting regulations.
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