OIG: Commercial Crew Program pushed to NET 2018
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — NASA’s efforts to send crews to the International Space Station (ISS) via commercially-produced spacecraft and launch vehicles are facing an array of challenges. This is according to a report issued by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
The findings were underscored by the recent launch pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 and the loss of the Amos-6 satellite it was tasked with sending to a geostationary transfer orbit. Both the accident as well as the release of the OIG’s report fell on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016.
As was noted in a report appearing on Ars Technica, NASA has come under criticism for significant delays in safety reviews in terms of the Commercial Crew Program.
NASA’s OIG also noted its concerns in their strongly-worded report. Some of the more prevalent issues that face NASA’s efforts to send crews to the ISS via commercial means were listed on Parabolic Arc as follows:
- First commercial crew flights likely to slip to late 2018 — 3 years beyond original schedule
- Boeing and SpaceX facing significant design challenges, including CST-100 weight and excess seawater seeping into the Dragon capsule
- “Significant” delays in NASA evaluation of partner safety and hazard reviews and reports
- NASA to pay additional $490 million ($82 million per seat) for astronaut transport on Russian Soyuz through 2018
In the OIG’s report, the body stated the situation as follows:
“The Commercial Crew Program continues to face multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018 – more than 3 years after NASA’s original 2015 goal. While past funding shortfalls have contributed to the Delay, technical challenges with the contractors’ spacecraft designs re now driving schedule slippages.”
According to the report, as part of the certification process, the two companies must conduct safety reviews and report to NASA any potential hazards as well as their plans to lower those risks.
“We found significant delays in NASA’s evaluation and approval of these hazard reports and related requests for variances from NASA requirements that increase the risk costly redesign work may be required in late development, which could further delay certification,” the report continues. It further states while the space agency is supposed to complete a review within eight weeks of receiving of a hazard report, contractors told the OIG it could sometimes take as long as six months.
With the delays that have already occurred, NASA has contracted Roscosmos to send the U.S. space agency’s astronauts to ISS via Russian Soyuz capsules through the end of 2018. The total cost of this extension has been $490 million – about $82 million per seat – for six astronauts. According to Parabolic Arc, over the course of the past decade Russia has increased the cost to send crews by 384 percent.
The OIG report concludes if Commercial Crew experiences any more delays, NASA may need to buy more seats from Russia to ensure there is no gap of U.S. astronauts aboard the ISS.
According to Ars Technica, NASA normally buys seats about three years before launching. As such, if the agency is going to need more seats in 2019, another transaction with Roscosmos will likely need to happen soon.
In the end, the OIG recommends NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations implement procedures to monitor the timeliness of NASA’s review process for hazard reports. They conclude this would help reduce the risk these reports cause on the programs schedule.
The report did mention that NASA managers were already working to resolve this particular problem and, pending verification and completion of those actions, this recommendation is considered resolved.
According to the report, a second recommendation was to coordinate better with SpaceX and Boeing to document a path to a speedy resolution for variance requests as well as hazard reports that have exceeded the review period goals. NASA managers have agreed partially with this recommendation and will continue to have “weekly discussions with the companies to develop a path for timely resolution.”
“However, we believe NASA needs to take additional action to ensure timely review of hazard reports and avoid the possibility of costly redesign late in the development schedule,” the report concludes. “Therefore, this recommendation is unresolved pending further discussion with Agency officials.”
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.
Pardon my naivete, but you would think the half billion we’ll be spending on the additional Russian seats would be enough to solve whatever issues NASA is having with the safety review processes. It really confuses me how the Government spends our tax dollars sometimes.
Commercial crews won’t be free, either. NASA could give the half a billion to domestic partners, if they are ready, or to the Russians. It does not have an extra half a billion for fixing the safety review process.
Ahh, the muck of government agency paperwork. Maybe the office that handles those variances is under-staffed and under-teched…if so then it still shakes down to a funding issue.
Not the partners’ fault though, further highlighting the value of the effort to privatize crewed spaceflight in the long-run.