GAO Worries About Commercial Crew Contingency Plans as Boeing Takes Pre-Tax Charge for Potential OFT Reflight

GAO Worries About Commercial Crew Contingency Plans as Boeing Takes Pre-Tax Charge for Potential OFT Reflight

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its latest review of NASA’s commercial crew program today.  As it has in the past, it urged NASA to develop a contingency plan for keeping U.S. astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) if the commercial crew systems are further delayed.  Meanwhile, Boeing told investors today it is taking a $410 million pre-tax charge in case NASA requires a second uncrewed Starliner Orbital Flight Test (OFT).

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  It pays Russia for crew transportation services.  Instead of building a shuttle replacement itself, NASA entered into Public-Private Partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX to develop new commercial crew space transportation systems.  The companies own the systems. NASA purchases services from them.

Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon are both well behind schedule.  NASA anticipated they would be ready by now and its last contracted trip on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft will take place in April.  GAO and NASA’s Office of Inspector General have been warning NASA for years that it needs to have a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are further delayed.  There is some concern that schedule pressure could cause the companies and/or NASA to relax safety standards in order to speed the systems along.

Boeing and SpaceX must conduct uncrewed and then crewed test flights of their systems to ISS as steps towards certification for operational missions.

The bright orange flames at the top are the SuperDraco abort engines firing as they propel the uncrewed Crew Dragon away from a Falcon 9 rocket during the SpaceX In-Flight Abort test, January 18, 2020. Image credit: SpaceX

SpaceX completed its uncrewed test flight, Demo-1, in March 2019 and less than two weeks ago successfully conducted an In-Flight Abort test, the last major test before the crewed test flight, Demo-2, can take place. A date has not been set, but NASA and SpaceX are aiming for the second quarter (April-June) of this year.

Boeing conducted its uncrewed test flight in December, but it was not entirely successful.  Launch and landing were fine, but the failure of Starliner’s Mission Elapsed Timer led to a series of events that meant it could not rendezvous and dock with the ISS.  Boeing and NASA established a joint investigation team to determine the root cause.

At the annual Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC, today, Jim Chilton, Boeing Senior Vice President for Space and Launch, said the test did not go as planned “because we made a mistake. … The way our software and avionics were working caused the spacecraft to believe it was in a different part of the mission” and the orbital insertion burn did not take place at the right time.

Boeing announced in its fourth quarter 2019 financial results today that it is taking a $410 million pre-tax charge in case NASA requires the test to be repeated.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said on January 7 that a decision would not be made for several weeks.

At the moment, then, SpaceX may be able to send a crew to ISS in the April-June 2020 time frame, but that is intended to be a short test flight of perhaps a week’s duration. Two NASA astronauts will fly the mission and NASA is considering whether to keep them on ISS for a longer period.

Boeing’s schedule is uncertain.  NASA is already planning to keep that test flight crew — two NASA astronauts and a former NASA astronaut who now works for Boeing — on ISS for a long duration mission, but when it will launch is anyone’s guess.

GAO is concerned because the only certainty right now is that, as of April, only one U.S. crew member will be aboard ISS. His tour is slated to end in October.  NASA is negotiating for another Soyuz seat this fall, but that deal has not been finalized and it would still mean just one NASA astronaut on ISS along with two Russians.  Typically there are six crew members on board: either two or three Russians and the rest from NASA, ESA, Canada and Japan.  Today there are two Russians, three Americans, and one European aboard.

That makes getting the commercial crew systems operating a high priority, but GAO concludes there is significant work remaining to be done before operational flights to ISS commence.

At the time GAO wrote its report, NASA was hoping to fly an operational mission to ISS in March 2020, a date that now clearly will not be met.  Using that as its baseline, however, GAO pointed out that NASA’s plan to compress the transition from certification to operational missions might not allow enough time for key reviews.

NASA’s plans to compress the transition from completing certification to the start of operational mission [sic] may not leave enough time to complete key reviews. It also remains to be seen whether either contractor can finish manufacturing the hardware and training the astronauts in order to support NASA’s planned time frames. In light of this uncertainty regarding when operational missions can begin, it is even more important that NASA complete action on our open recommendation to develop a contingency plan, with time frames, to ensure a presence on the ISS. — GAO

GAO also pointed out that the commercial crew launches require FAA licenses, but NASA and FAA have not finalized mechanisms to communicate with each other about waivers.  The FAA can grant waivers to license requirements that do not affect public safety — the FAA’s responsibility — but they could affect crew safety so NASA wants to know about them prior to Flight Readiness Reviews.  It recommended that the agencies come up with a final plan before the first operational mission.  NASA and FAA concurred with the recommendations.

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