NASA May Operationalize Boeing’s Commercial Crew Flight Test – UPDATED

NASA May Operationalize Boeing’s Commercial Crew Flight Test – UPDATED

NASA revealed today that it has modified its commercial crew contract with Boeing to provide “flexibility” to use the crew flight test of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner system essentially as an operational mission.  Instead of two crew members there could be three and a six-month mission instead of two weeks.

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule. Credit: Boeing

Boeing is one of two companies developing crew space transportation systems through public-private partnerships with NASA.  The “commercial crew” systems will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  Boeing’s system is the CST-100 Starliner capsule that will be launched by United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets.  ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX is the other company.  Its Crew Dragon will be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

NASA has not been able to launch crews to the ISS since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  It relies on Russia to ferry crews back and forth on its Soyuz spacecraft.  NASA’s arrangement to purchase “seats” on Soyuz will expire in 2019.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts in 2014 to complete development of their systems.  That included each company conducting an uncrewed flight test and a crewed flight test that would allow the systems to be certified for use in operational missions.  According to NASA’s commercial crew program website, the current schedules are as follows:

  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): August 2018
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): November 2018
  • SpaceX Demonstration Mission 1 (uncrewed): August 2018
  • SpaceX Demonstration Mission 2 (crewed): December 2018

Those schedules are considered optimistic by many both inside and outside NASA.

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on commercial crew, Jan. 17, 2018. (L-R): Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), John Mulholland (Boeing), Hans Koenigsmann (SpaceX), Cristina Chaplain (GAO), Pat Sanders (Chair, NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel). Screengrab

At a January 2018 hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Space Subcommittee, Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that GAO’s most recent review of the program concluded that Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner are not likely to be certified until December 2019 and January 2020 respectively.  Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, responded that NASA is “brainstorming” options if there are delays.

Today’s announcement apparently is one of those options.  It states that the contract modification includes the ability to extend Boeing’s Crew Flight Test (CFT) from two weeks to six months and send a third crew member on the mission.  That “provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” Gerstenmaier said today, but added that “[t]urning a test flight into an operational mission needs careful review by the technical community.”

During a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee (NAC/HEO) last week, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, Kathy Lueders, agreed with the characterization that the schedules are “aggressive.”  Lueders stressed, however, that while NASA wants the systems operational as soon as possible, it does not want safety to be sacrificed in order to meet a schedule.

That point also was made at a March 1 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).  ASAP chair Pat Sanders said the panel had not seen the commercial crew program take any shortcuts in response to schedule pressure so far and encouraged NASA to continue in that manner.

Wayne Hale, a former space shuttle program manager, offered a somewhat different point of view at the NAC/HEO meeting, however.   He said that spaceflight will always be risky and program managers must make risk decisions every day based on cost and schedule.  “The only way to be perfectly safe is to stay home,” he cautioned.  Hale is a member of the NAC and its HEO committee.

NASA announced the news about the Boeing contract modification via Twitter and a posting on the commercial crew program’s blog rather than through a press release.

In an emailed response to about whether the SpaceX contract might be similarly modified, NASA said that Boeing made this proposal to NASA last year and if SpaceX submits a proposal the agency “will review it through the normal procurement process.”  Asked how the Boeing idea has been vetted so far, including with ASAP, NASA replied that modifying the contract “enables the necessary planning and technical evaluation” and NASA will describe the contract modification “and how it provides schedule flexibility” during its regular quarterly briefings to ASAP.

Note:  This article was updated April 6 with the response from NASA in the last paragraph.

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