Both SpaceX and Boeing have high-flying plans to send NASA’s astronauts to the International Space Station, or bring them home, by about 2019 — but with under two years left to go, the U.S. Government still has some concern about the shape of the two companies’ programs.
On Thursday, the Government Accountability Office published a report on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which oversees both SpaceX’s plan to use its Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 rocket to get astronauts to the ISS and Boeing’s Atlas V - Starliner spacecraft combination to do the same. The two companies have been going down NASA’s checklists for years, but the GAO still identified a few major risks with the two programs.
According to the report, Boeing’s top risk is simply not having enough information — the Russian-made engine for the United Launch Alliance’s (Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s rocket-science superteam) Atlas V rocket isn’t currently certified to launch human payloads, and the information NASA needs to certify it is tied up in red tape between the U.S. and Russian governments. The report also found that Boeing needs to do more testing on the system’s parachutes, which are integral to getting the Starliner back on the ground safely.
SpaceX’s biggest problem is also, not coincidentally, referred to in the sub-title of the entire report: Schedule Pressure Increases as Contractors Delay Key Events. Essentially, SpaceX (and Boeing) are probably going to be late on everything. Specifically, the report casts doubt on SpaceX’s ability to get the last two upgrades to the Falcon Nine Block 5 rocket, which will carry the Dragon capsule, ready and certified before the first unmanned test flight in November 2018. While a leaked portion of the report caused a stir over allegations that a specific part of SpaceX’s engines had a tendency to develop cracks over time, the full report notes that the company has assured NASA that it has fixed these physical problems.
The GAO report also raised concerns with the company’s plan to fuel up the Falcon 9 rocket with its liquid oxygen propellant after the astronauts in the Dragon are on board. This technique hasn’t been used in manned spaceflight for over 50 years (since the John Glenn era), and NASA is concerned that pumping very volatile liquid oxygen into a tank that living people are sitting on top of is a bad idea. However, SpaceX maintains that it’s actually safer to do it that way, as letting the astronauts on first minimizes the amount of time the Falcon 9 sits around on the launch pad filled with extremely explosive material. The elephant in the room, of course, is SpaceX’s “static fire anomaly” in September, when a Falcon 9 rocket burned up in a massive fireball on the launch pad. Inverse reached out to SpaceX to ask if the company’s ongoing investigation into that failure has changed its views on the crewed mission fueling process, and will update this post when we hear back.
Missing deadlines and setbacks have been a consistent problem for the entirety of the Commercial Crew Program. While some of the GAO’s concerns may seem minor in the grand scheme of a program that involves billions of dollars and thousands of moving parts and technological innovations, getting things shipshape for a 2019 launch is going to take time — and that’s one thing NASA doesn’t have. Every time the two private contractors have to push back or delay, the space agency loses bargaining power with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency that, to date, operates the only fully-capable system for getting people into space.
The report’s eventual conclusion is that NASA needs a backup plan. If SpaceX and Boeing can’t come through in time, the space agency will have to have a way to get astronauts to and from the ISS.
In order to ensure that the United States has continued access to the ISS if the Commercial Crew Program’s contractors experience additional schedule delays, we recommend the NASA Administrator develop a contingency plan for maintaining a presence on the ISS beyond 2018, including options to purchase additional Russian Soyuz seats, and report to Congress on the results.
Boeing has already covered its ass in some respects on this, by purchasing extra tickets on the Russian’s Soyuz capsule and potentially agreeing to sell them to NASA, but for the most part, the government was looking to be done with the Soyuz by about 2019. While the two companies are often reluctant to admit that they’re behind schedule, the GAO isn’t as optimistic.