It’s Official: Boeing and SpaceX Crewed Test Flights Slip to 2019

It’s Official: Boeing and SpaceX Crewed Test Flights Slip to 2019

On the heels of Boeing’s announcement yesterday of delays in the test flights for its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, today NASA posted a new schedule both for Boeing and SpaceX.  Boeing’s dates for uncrewed and crewed test flights have slipped more than SpaceX’s, but the upshot is that it will be a race to see whether either system is operational before NASA loses access to Russian Soyuz spacecraft at the end of 2019.  Right now, Soyuz is the only way to get any astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been warning that the commercial crew systems — Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner/Atlas V and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon/Falcon 9 — are not likely to be certified for operational flights until late 2019 or 2020.  In reports issued in February 2017 and June 2018, GAO urged NASA to develop contingency plans to ensure uninterrupted U.S. access to ISS if the new systems are not ready in time.  NASA’s contract with Russia for seats on Soyuz ends in November 2019.

Artist’s illustration of Crew Dragon. Credit: NASA

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries operating under the aegis of the European Space Agency (ESA). The partnership is governed by an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) signed by all the parties in 1998. The United States spent $60-100 billion, depending on how costs for space shuttle flights are counted, to build ISS.  NASA spends $3-4 billion a year to operate ISS.

NASA agreed to provide transportation for Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts as part of the IGA.  When it was signed in 1998, NASA expected the space shuttle would be taking crews and cargo to and from ISS throughout its lifetime.  Instead, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama decided to terminate the space shuttle as soon as ISS construction was completed.  NASA has not been able to launch any people into space since the shuttle’s last flight in 2011.  It relies on Russia to transport American and other non-Russian crew members to and from ISS.  NASA pays Russia about $82 million per seat.

The commercial crew program is intended to restore the ability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.  The question is when those systems will be ready to safely transport crews.

Confident that the commercial crew systems would be ready before its contract with Russia expired, NASA did not negotiate a new contract for additional seats beyond the last launch in July 2019 and landing in November 2019.  Beyond its own contract with Russia, NASA was able to secure five more seats through an arrangement with Boeing, which obtained them as part of compensation for an unrelated joint space venture (Sea Launch) it had with the Russian company that also builds Soyuz (Energia).  It is those seats that will be exhausted in November 2019.

Until this morning, the publicly available schedule posted on the Internet by NASA showed all four commercial crew test flights — uncrewed and crewed for both companies — taking place in 2018.  While few believed that was realistic, today’s official change underscores that a potential gap in U.S. access to ISS is looming. The crewed test flights have slipped to 2019.

Source: NASA Commercial Crew Program website, August 2, 2018.

The commercial crew program is a public-private partnership (PPP) where the private sector and the government share development costs and the government guarantees to buy a certain amount of services.  It is not a traditional government “cost plus” contract where the government, in this case NASA, has total control of the program and takes the risk that costs will grow beyond the agreed-upon level.  It selected SpaceX and Boeing as its partners in 2014 for firm fixed-price contracts.  Boeing’s contract is for $4.2 billion; SpaceX’s for $2.6 billion.

Artist’s illustration of CST-100 Starliner. Credit: NASA

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine emphasized that point during a media roundtable at Johnson Space Center today: “We have two partners. Each operating their own timelines. We don’t dictate the timelines to them. They tell us what their timeline is and then we’re going to buy their service.”

Consequently,  NASA cannot specify when the test flights will take place or the systems will be ready for operational flights.  It reports what the companies say, although NASA does its own analysis as well and must certify that the systems meet specified requirements.

NASA’s response to GAO’s warnings about a potential gap in having U.S. astronauts aboard ISS is that it is “brainstorming” options.  Bridenstine mentioned two of them today.   One is to keep U.S. astronauts aboard ISS longer than the typical 4-6 month missions.  Another is to “operationalize” the crewed test flights.  NASA already said that it is looking into that for Boeing’s test flight. Bridenstine’s comments today suggest NASA is considering it for SpaceX, too.

More information on whatever contingency plans are under consideration might come up tomorrow when Bridenstine announces which NASA astronauts will fly the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon test flights.

An obvious answer to the question of how to ensure uninterrupted U.S. crew access to ISS is to buy more Soyuz seats from Russia. NASA officials insist, however, that it is too late to negotiate a new contract because it takes three years to build a Soyuz.

However, Russia will still be building Soyuz spacecraft for its own ISS crew members. Each Soyuz can accommodate three people.  A Russian commander occupies one seat and another Russian cosmonaut is usually in the second, leaving the third seat open.  Sometimes Russia uses the third seat for another of its own cosmonauts, but before NASA began purchasing the seats Russia also used them for tourists who reportedly paid about $25 million to spend a week on ISS.  Russia is already making a seat available to others now that the contract with NASA is expiring.  The United Arab Emirates (UAE) will fly its first astronaut to ISS on a Soyuz in April 2019.

Conceptually, NASA might be able to buy more of those seats for itself for the right price.  The Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) prohibits NASA from making “extraordinary payments” to Russia for anything associated with the ISS.  NASA therefore required a waiver from Congress to sign the earlier contracts.  That happened most recently in January 2013  in the Space Exploration Sustainability Act (P.L. 112-273) which granted the waiver through December 31, 2020, so that would give NASA another year.

Bridenstine also said today that NASA will still fly astronauts on Soyuz once the commercial crew systems are operational and it wants Russian cosmonauts on the SpaceX and Boeing systems. “We are committed to our partnership with Russia on the International Space Station even after we have crew. We will be launching on Soyuz rockets, we want them to launch on commercial crew rockets.  That’s been a great partnership, we want to keep it.”

The remarks echo those of Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing earlier this year.  He said ISS operations require at least one Russian and one American to be aboard.  Thus they need to be able to get there on both countries’ vehicles. He said the flights would be on a no-exchange-of-funds basis although an agreement to that effect had not been signed at the time of the hearing.  Nonetheless, it illustrates that seats will be available on Soyuz for U.S. crewmembers even after the commercial crew systems are flying.


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