Delays in commercial crew program problematic for ISS

Government report advises NASA to develop contingency plans in the event deadlines aren’t met.

Both Boeing and SpaceX, companies with which NASA contracted to transport astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2019, could face delays of a year or more in obtaining agency certification for their vehicles, causing a gap in space station supply missions and astronaut transport.

Current schedules specify both companies will conduct un-crewed test flights in August of this year and crewed test flights shortly after, with Boeing’s scheduled for November and SpaceX’s for December.

Meeting these deadlines would enable both companies to be certified to fly astronauts to the ISS in early 2019–Boeing in January and SpaceX in February.

However, a report issued July 11 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expresses concern that both companies could miss the deadline for certification by at least a year. NASA’s contract with Russia for transportation of astronauts to and from the ISS via Soyuz capsules expires at the end of 2019, potentially leaving a gap with no supply missions or means of ferrying astronauts.

“Boeing and SpaceX continue to make progress developing a capability to fly to the ISS, but both have continued to experience delays. Additional delays could also disrupt US access to the ISS,” the report states.

NASA’s latest risk analysis predicts Boeing will be certified in December 2019 and SpaceX in January 2020. But these dates are estimates, and further delays could postpone both companies’ certifications to the fall of 2020.

Emphasizing the potential gap in access to the ISS, the GAO report advises NASA to develop a contingency plan for ISS access should the current deadlines not be met.

“If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further commercial crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the US policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report notes.

NASA is already considering several options for dealing with the possible delays. One is extending Soyuz transport of astronauts until the end of 2020. Another is extending the crewed demonstration flights and prolonging astronauts’ stay on the space station by several months.

According to the GAO report, NASA has continued to insist the initial deadlines will be met by both Boeing and SpaceX even though the companies admit delays are likely.

NASA agreed to recommendations made in the report, including developing a contingency plan for ISS access by the end of this year, documenting its risk tolerance level for crew safety, and separating the job of managing commercial crew safety from that of independent safety oversight.

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