NASA “Brainstorming” Options if Commercial Crew Not Ready Before End of 2019 – UPDATED

NASA “Brainstorming” Options if Commercial Crew Not Ready Before End of 2019 – UPDATED

The Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew systems are not likely to be certified until late 2019 or early 2020 according to testimony to Congress today from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  That could imperil U.S. access to the International Space Station (ISS) since NASA has purchased seats to fly on Russian Soyuz spacecraft only through 2019.  NASA said it is “brainstorming” ideas on what to do if the contracted Soyuz flights end before the commercial crew systems are ready.   Everyone at the hearing agreed that safety, not schedule, should drive the program, however.

Witnesses at January 17, 2018 House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on commercial crew. L-R: Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), John Mulholland (Boeing), Hans Koenigsmann (SpaceX), Cristina Chaplain (GAO), Pat Sanders (ASAP). Screengrab.

At the hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, GAO’s Cristina Chaplain provided an update on the congressional watchdog agency’s assessment of the progress of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).  Other witnesses were from Boeing (John Mulholland), SpaceX (Hans Koenigsmann), NASA (Bill Gerstenmaier), and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (Pat Sanders).

Boeing and SpaceX were selected by NASA in 2014 for firm fixed price contracts to complete development of systems to take crews to and from the ISS.  NASA awarded Boeing $4.2 billion and SpaceX $2.6 billion.

Boeing’s system is the Starliner capsule that will be launched on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket. ULA is a 50-50 joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be launched on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  SpaceX already is taking cargo to and from ISS using a different version of Dragon as part of NASA’s commercial cargo program.  That version of Dragon cannot support crews.

Commercial crew and commercial cargo are public private partnerships (PPPs) where the government and industry share the cost of development and the government guarantees to purchase a certain amount of services.  The companies are expected to find other customers to make their business cases close.   For commercial crew, NASA is buying six flights each of Starliner and Crew Dragon.

How much the companies are investing versus the government is a closely held secret.  At a 2012 hearing, NASA’s Gerstenmaier said NASA was paying about 80-90 percent of the costs of the program at that point in time.  At another hearing in 2015, Boeing’s Mulholland and SpaceX’s Garrett Reisman asserted they did not know how much their companies were investing, but neither disagreed with committee members who used the 90 percent figure.  Today, in response to a question about how much “skin in the game” each company has, Mulholland and SpaceX’s Koenigsmann punted, insisting they did not know those figures.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX). Screengrab from Jan. 17, 2018 hearing on commercial crew systems.

Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) warned in his opening statement today of potential cost overruns on the program.  Under firm fixed price contracts the companies bear the financial risk of cost increases and schedule delays, although the contract value can be increased if NASA changes the scope or requests additional tests, for example.  Gerstenmaier said today that the cost of the Boeing contract has increased by 2.2 percent since it was originally awarded (from $4.229 billion to $4.332 billion) and SpaceX’s by 1.8 percent (from $2.599 billion to $2.646 billion).

Babin worried that “NASA may seek additional funding or accept significant risks.  Neither of those options is viable.  As I said at our recent hearing on SLS and Orion, NASA and the contractors have to execute.”  While PPPs have merit, “we must also recognize the hazards of such partnerships.  Without diligent oversight by NASA and Congress, these programs could simply end up being corporate welfare and bad deals for taxpayers.”

NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.  NASA purchases “seats” on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to take U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese astronauts to and from ISS.  Gerstenmaier said today that the last of those seats are for flights to the ISS in the spring of 2019 and return to Earth in the fall of 2019.   Since it takes three years to build a Soyuz, there is no time to contract with Russia for the manufacture of additional Soyuz capsules to enable NASA to purchase Soyuz seats beyond that point in time, he explained.

That being said, Gerstenmaier also told the committee that when commercial crew is operational, American astronauts will still fly on Soyuz spacecraft and Russian astronauts will fly on the U.S. commercial crew systems.  That is for safety reasons because a minimum of one American and one Russian is needed to operate the U.S. and Russian segments of the ISS respectively and in an emergency they would return to Earth on whatever spacecraft took them to the ISS.  Those flights will be on a no-exchange-of-funds basis.  Gerstenmaier later clarified to through a spokesperson that there is no formal agreement to that effect yet:  “We have agreement in principle and are determining appropriate means to implement this plan.”

Questions today swirled about safety, reliability and cost, but the overarching concern is schedule — what happens to U.S. utilization of ISS if the commercial crew systems are not ready by the time the last of the contracted Soyuz seats are exhausted.  As Babin said, the “risk that these companies cannot meet their deadlines or safety requirements increases the risk that the ISS cannot be successfully or gracefully transitioned in the middle of the next decade.  Increasing risks to ISS transition in turn, increase risk to human exploration programs in general.”

Chaplain reported that based on information provided to GAO by NASA, Crew Dragon and Starliner are not expected to be certified by NASA for operational flights to the ISS until December 2019 and February 2020 respectively.

The companies report quarterly to the CCP program manager, Kathy Leuders.  The CCP program periodically releases the most recent schedule for test flights.  Each company will conduct an uncrewed test flight followed by a crewed test flight.

Chaplain explained that NASA divides certification into two “acceptance events” — the “design certification” review and the “certification” review.  Design certification signifies that the system can “safely approach, dock, mate, and depart from ISS” followed by certification that determines whether the company has completed the flight tests and other activities and meets CCP requirements.

A lot of attention is focused on the test flight dates.  Last week, the CCP released the most recent schedule showing SpaceX’s test flights have slipped a few months, but both companies still are expected to complete their uncrewed and crewed test flights by the end of 2018.

Planning dates for major development milestones in the commercial crew program as of January 2018. Excerpt from written statement by Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, at January 17, 2018 hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

In his written statement for today’s hearing, Gerstenmaier provided a chart showing certification for SpaceX in February 2019 and for Boeing in January 2019.

But Chaplain’s testimony was quite different.  After reviewing documents and interviewing representatives of the companies and the CCP program, GAO found that “the program’s own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip to December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing.”

GAO cites the CCP program manager as explaining that its analysis is based not only on statements from the companies, but takes into account that the companies “are aggressive and use their schedule dates to motivate their teams” and “assume an efficiency factor in getting to the crewed flight test that NASA does not factor into its analysis.”

Gerstenmaier did acknowledge that delays from the dates he provided “may be experienced” and “NASA is tracking this situation carefully.”

If the schedule slips to the end of 2019 and early 2020, the question becomes how will NASA access ISS since it will have exhausted its supply of contracted Soyuz seats.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). Credit: Johnson website.

One point on which everyone — committee members and witnesses — agreed is that safety must be the driving factor, not schedule.  Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, noted that next week NASA will commemorate the Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia tragedies.  “We cannot forget their sacrifices, even as we blaze new trails into space.”  Even if there is a potential gap between Soyuz and commercial crew, “we cannot afford to cut corners….”

Gerstenmaier said NASA is “aware of the schedule, but we are not driven by the schedule. … We are brainstorming ideas to provide additional schedule time if needed … [and] looking for ways to allow the partners to reach an operational tempo after certification. The ISS program is looking at ways to maximize ISS operations while allowing for some delays in launch dates.” live tweeted the 2-hour hearing, which covered many more points.  Check our Twitter feed (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more details.

UPDATE, January 24.  This article was updated to add Gerstenmaier’s clarification that no formal agreement has been signed with Russia about flying Russian cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles, and Americans on Soyuz beyond the current contract, on a no exchange of funds basis. requested information on the agreement the day of the hearing, but between the government shutdown and Gerstenmaier’s travel schedule, the reply was received only today.

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