NASA’s ambitious initiative to fly astronauts on commercial spacecraft continues to suffer from schedule delays, as well as questions regarding the program’s safety — and Congress isn’t happy about it. Members of the House Subcommittee on Space held a hearing today in which they grilled representatives from NASA and its commercial partners about the program, known as Commercial Crew. They voiced concerns that the commercial vehicles might put human crew members at risk, and that the companies will miss crucial deadlines by two to three years.
As part of the program, two companies — Boeing and SpaceX — are developing spacecraft to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. When these two companies were selected by NASA back in 2014, the goal was to start flying crews to the station as early as 2017. But 2017 has come and gone, and the target dates keep moving. Just this month, SpaceX’s timeline for its first Commercial Crews flight was pushed back four months, and NASA says that both companies are still a year away from flying astronauts for the first time.
Experts think that’s a generous expectation. Today’s hearing coincided with the release of a critical report on the Commercial Crew program from the Government Accountability Office, which does periodic audits of NASA’s agendas. The authors of the report claim that SpaceX won’t be certified to fly astronauts to the ISS until December 2019, while Boeing’s certification will happen in February 2020. NASA plans to certify the company’s vehicles only after they’ve done an uncrewed test flight and a crewed test flight, meaning the first astronauts likely won’t fly until late next year at the earliest. The vehicles can only start performing regular trips to the ISS once they’re certified.
The report also raises doubts that Boeing and SpaceX will meet the safety standards that NASA has set for the program. NASA is requiring that both companies prove that there is only a 1 in 270 chance of a flight going catastrophically wrong and losing crew members on board. In other words, 99.6 percent of the Commercial Crew missions should keep astronauts safe during flight. It’s a particularly stringent requirement, especially since each Space Shuttle flight had a 1 in 80 chance of loss of life. The GAO report argues that the two companies may not meet this hard standard, and that NASA may have to accept a higher level of risk for the astronauts on board.
But Congress is refusing to give NASA and its commercial partners any more wiggle room. The subcommittee members made it clear that NASA should not expect more money to help the companies meet their deadlines, and that changing the safety standards is not a good idea. “Both companies are making progress, but certainly not at the rate that was expected, and not without significant challenges to safety and reliability,” Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space, said at the hearing. “In order to remedy these problems, NASA may seek additional funding or accept significant risks. Neither of those options is viable.”
The Commercial Crew program was originally envisioned as a more cost-effective way to develop new vehicles for NASA. Instead of NASA investing billions and heavily overseeing the development of a spacecraft — as it did with the Shuttle — the space agency would let commercial companies develop their own vehicles with minimal oversight and partial government funding. The idea was that this more “hands off” approach would save taxpayers’ money and allow companies more flexibility when creating their vehicles. The companies could also conceivably work faster, since they wouldn’t be restricted by as much government red tape.
While it’s true that NASA is saving potentially millions of dollars by investing in these commercial vehicles, the Commercial Crew program isn’t moving as quickly as expected. One reason may be that the companies set super aggressive target dates (something the GAO notes in its report). The strict safety standards may also play a roll, requiring the companies to do lots of additional testing to prove that their vehicles are reliable and safe. Plus, other unforeseen challenges have cropped up, throwing timelines off track.
NASA says that ultimately, the schedule isn’t the agency’s biggest priority. “NASA is aware of the schedule but not driven by the schedule,” Bill Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations for NASA, said at the hearing. Of course, as the dates for the program move to the right, NASA…