GAO Reiterates Need for NASA to Have Commercial Crew Backup Plan

GAO Reiterates Need for NASA to Have Commercial Crew Backup Plan

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its most recent report on NASA’s commercial crew program today. As it has in the past, it recommends NASA have a contingency plan in case the SpaceX and Boeing crew transportation systems are not certified for operational use in the time frame NASA expects. Although NASA recently purchased two more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft because of actual and anticipated delays, GAO points out there is no contingency plan if the delays persist.

The dates for test flights of the two commercial crew systems — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner/Atlas V — have slipped since GAO’s last review of the programs in July 2018.

SpaceX’s schedule remains in limbo.  It successfully conducted its uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in March.  However, it experienced an “anomaly” in April during preparations for an In-Flight Abort test that destroyed the very same Crew Dragon capsule that had just returned from the ISS.  The company and NASA continue to investigate what went wrong.  The dates for the abort test and the crewed test flight are in abeyance until the investigation is completed.

Boeing has not yet conducted its uncrewed flight test, abort test, or crewed flight test.  The current schedule posted on NASA’s commercial crew website calls for all of them to take place this year, with the crewed test flight in “late 2019.”

GAO completed its review in May 2019.  At that time, the status of the programs was as follows.

The issue is what happens if the systems are further delayed.  GAO reports that each contractor already has delayed its certification date nine times since the contracts with NASA were signed.  Just since GAO’s last review in July 2018, Boeing delayed its certification milestone “four times and by 12 months,” while SpaceX has done so “three times and by 7 months.”

All these delays beg the question of what the future holds since both companies still have program risks to overcome as detailed in the GAO report and highlighted at recent meetings of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Last year, GAO urged NASA to develop and execute a contingency plan.  NASA did so, purchasing the two additional Soyuz seats, which will keep U.S. crews on ISS through September 2020, and extending the duration of the Boeing crewed flight test.

GAO found those measures insufficient. To fully implement the recommendation, “NASA needs to provide additional support regarding planning efforts to ensure uninterrupted access to the ISS if delays with the Commercial Crew Program contractors continue beyond September 2020. Continued NASA attention on this issue is needed given the uncertainty associated with the final certification dates.”

NASA responded that its actions “provide adequate schedule margin,” but if the situation changes, “NASA will reassess our options to ensure we maintain a U.S. presence on ISS.”

Curiously, NASA officials told GAO they “could not publicly disclose the price NASA paid” for the two additional Soyuz seats, “but noted that the cost was 5 percent higher per seat” than before.  NASA had been paying $82 million per seat, so that would make it about $86 million.

NASA has not been able to launch crews to the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It must rely on Russia to take people back and forth.  The commercial crew systems, developed through public-private partnerships, will restore the ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil — the program’s unofficial motto.


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