SpaceX vs. Boeing: Why a Crewed Spacecraft to the ISS by 2019 Is Unlikely

SpaceX and Boeing are unlikely to complete a crewed flight to the International Space Station next year, according to a report from the United States government released this week. The two firms are vying to help NASA complete trips to the station after the agency’s contract with the Russian Soyuz spacecraft expires in November 2019, but the report warns of a gap due to delays in certification.

The Wednesday report from the Government Accountability Office shows a gap between the two firms and NASA’s expectations for when they will receive certifications. Both firms have continued developing their transportation systems, but their deadlines for certification have slipped. In addition, a risk analysis by the Commercial Crew Program found in April 2018 a “zero percent chance” that either firm could reach its new milestones, instead suggesting a more likely certification date would be December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX. The program found that Boeing faces risks from its abort system, parachute system, and launch vehicle data. SpaceX, on the other hand, faces risks from the development of the Falcon 9 Block 5 launch vehicle, including risks from the composite overwrap pressure vessel, the engine turbine cracking, and the propellant loading procedures.

The report shows a large potential gap in operations.


The agency ended the space shuttle program back in 2011, so it has to depend on third party support to move astronauts and supplies to and from the space station. Astronauts tend to stay on the station for around five to six months, with six astronauts currently on board.

NASA is looking at two options to plug the gap. The first is to refine the end of the Soyuz launch schedule for a return in January 2020 rather than November 2019, buying the commercial teams two more months. The second is to use crewed test flights as operational flights to and from the space station, which could work but depends on no slips in dates from the other two firms. Obtaining extra Soyuz seats is unlikely, as manufacturing and contracting take around three years.

Both firms are racing to complete the project. SpaceX plans to combine the crew and support modules over the coming months for three flight spacecraft, with testing of the propulsion system complete by the third quarter of this year. Boeing plans to conduct environmental testing for one spacecraft this quarter while combining the crew and service modules for the other craft this quarter.

The race is on to get to the space station.

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