NASA To Provide Commercial Crew Backup Plan by March 13 in Response to GAO

NASA To Provide Commercial Crew Backup Plan by March 13 in Response to GAO

NASA has agreed to develop a contingency plan for ensuring astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in case the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX are further delayed.  The action comes in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today that outlines delays that have occurred already and problems that may result in further schedule slippage.  NASA told GAO in writing it would have the backup plan ready by March 13, 2017.

NASA has had to rely on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It contracts with Russia’s Roscosmos space state corporation to purchase seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.  The current contract covers launches through 2018 and landings in 2019.   About three years are required for Russia to build Soyuz spacecraft so NASA has endeavored in the past to sign contracts well in advance. Russia currently charges $82 million per seat.

NASA, Roscosmos and the other international partners in the ISS program — Canada, Japan, and Europe — have agreed to continue operating ISS at least until 2024.  NASA provides transportation for the Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the ISS partnership.

In 2011, NASA initiated a commercial crew program whereby Boeing and SpaceX are developing the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, through public-private partnerships (PPPs).   In PPPs, the government and industry share development costs and the government guarantees it will purchase certain services, in this case a fixed number of flights.  Boeing will use the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch CST-100 Starliner (ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin).  SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon on its own Falcon 9 rocket.

At the beginning, NASA hoped commercial crew flights would begin in 2015, but that date slipped to 2017 at least in part due to lower than requested funding from Congress for NASA’s share of the development costs.  Additional delays have followed.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) oversees the Boeing and SpaceX efforts and must certify that the systems meet strict standards.  Operational flights cannot begin until the certification review is complete, which takes place after each company flies an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight.   At the moment, officially both companies plan to be certified in late 2018, but GAO reports that the CCP’s own analysis “indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019.”  GAO provided a chart comparing when the companies originally planned to be ready for their certification reviews and where they are now.


Government Accountability Office (GAO) chart of commercial crew certification delays.  NASA Commercial Crew Program: Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events. GAO report GAO-17-137, February 16, 2017, Highlights page.

Risks identified by CCP and listed in the GAO report that could delay certification include the following:

  • Boeing: lack of data needed to certify the Atlas V rocket for human spaceflight because it uses Russian RD-180 engines and access to the data is highly restricted under US-Russian agreements, and lack of data on the CST-100 Starliner’s parachute system;
  • SpaceX:  whether SpaceX has sufficient time to implement upgrades to the Falcon 9 engines and avionics in response to already planned design changes plus unplanned design changes in response to cracks discovered in engine turbines, and concerns about SpaceX’s plans to fuel the rocket while the crew is aboard.

With regard to the problems with SpaceX turbine blades, GAO reported:  “During qualification testing in 2015, SpaceX identified cracks in the turbines of its engine. Additional cracks were later identified.  Program officials told us that they have informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. SpaceX officials told us that they are working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks in order to meet NASA’s stringent targets for human rating.”

GAO also concluded the companies could have difficulty meeting the requirement set by NASA that the probability of Loss of Crew (LOC) on a given flight be no more than 1 in 270.  GAO listed three crew safety risks identified by CCP that apply to both companies:

  • the companies’ computer models may not accurately predict LOC;
  • the spacecraft may not be able to tolerate the micrometeoroid and orbital debris environment; and
  • if the companies cannot meet the LOC requirements, CCP could take “several actions,” but they may not be sufficient.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier spoke about LOC requirements at a conference last week.  He argued that too much importance is assigned to that metric, that it is useful in comparing designs, but not in determining absolute risk.

In light of all these problems and the impending end of the contract with Russia for Soyuz seats, GAO recommended that NASA develop and report to Congress on a contingency plan for how it could transport astronauts to and from ISS after the contract with Russia expires and whenever the commercial crew systems become available.

In a February 8, 2017 letter to GAO and published in the GAO report, NASA concurred and said it would develop such a plan by March 13, 2017.

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