GAO report on Commercial Crew: 'The hell they will launch before 2019'


NASA hopes that its Commercial Crew Program will allow the agency to send astronauts to the International Space Station and free the agency from its dependence on Russia. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA hopes that its Commercial Crew Program will allow the agency to send astronauts to the International Space Station and free the agency from its dependence on Russia. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Predictions by SpaceX’s president, Gwynn Shotwell, that the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft would fly with astronauts by 2018 appear to be inaccurate. Similarly Boeing’s entry in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program are not expected to able to achieve key certification objectives this year either, according to a government report.

This assessment is based on a recent report submitted on July 11, 2018, by the Government Accountability Office. It notes that SpaceX’s average certification date is now estimated to be January of 2020, with Boeing predicted to reach its certification milestone by December of 2019. 

SpaceX has made ambitious claims regarding the company’s crewed space exploration efforts. Company representatives have stated that it planned to send tourists around the Moon this year (2018) as was noted in a report by Kenneth Chang that appeared in the New York Times.

An Atlas V 422 rocket propels Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft skyward in this artist's depiction. The company is one of two contracted under NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

An Atlas V 422 rocket propels Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft skyward in this artist’s depiction. Image Credit: Nathan Koga / SpaceFlight Insider

Given SpaceX will not be able to send crews to low-Earth orbit before 2020 suggests the Hawthorne, California-based company will not be sending tourists around the Moon within this time frame. 

During a press conference held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in February of 2017, Shotwell stated: “I’m confident that we’ll fly crew in 2018. The response to the report this morning was, the hell we won’t fly before 2019.” Shotwell’s confidence was not supported by the July 11, 2018 GAO Report which stated:

“In April 2018, the program’s schedule risk analysis found there was zero percent chance that either contractor would achieve its current proposed certification milestone.”

The GAO Report goes on to note that these issues suggest a consistent pattern of behavior with both contractors:

“Our analysis also shows that the contractors often delay their schedules. Both contractors have repeatedly stated that their schedules are aggressive and have set ambitious—rather than realistic—dates, only to frequently delay them.”

While SpaceX’s proclamations have been bold, the other participant in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, has been more subdued. 

With a pad abort currently slated to take place later this year, Boeing has discovered that during a potential abort scenario the spacecraft could tumble. NASA also noted that a possible interaction between Starliner’s heat shield and its parachute system could result in issues requiring a redesign that could cause a delay of at least an additional six months.

Roger Krone, the president of Boeing’s Network and Space Systems stated on SpaceFlight Now in 2010 that Starliner could be operational by 2015 if the required funding was provided.

Boeing was awarded a contract worth an estimated $4.2 billion to produce and certify the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft by 2017, with SpaceX winning a $2.6 billion to construct and certify their Crew Dragon spacecraft. 

Old Issues Return


On Sept. 16, 2016 a buckled liner in one of the carbon overwrapped pressure vessels in the upper stage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 allowed super-cooled liquid oxygen to accumulate. This was then ignited due to friction and exploded. The resulting conflagration saw the loss of the Falcon 9, the $185 million Amos-6 satellite and a good part of the launch site. The rocket was at the pad being prepared for a static test fire when the accident took place. Unfortunately, this was not the lone accident to befall SpaceX with an “over-pressure” event causing the loss of that Falcon 9 as well as the Dragon spacecraft that was bound for the International Space Station with more than 4,000 pounds (1,800 kilograms) of supplies and experiments.

SpaceX Merlin 1D rocket engine Hawthorne California Falcon 9 v1.1 SpaceX photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

SpaceX’s Merlin 1D rocket engine has achieved an impressive track record in a very short amount of time. The engine was designed from the outset to be crew-rated – a critical aspect considering what the engines’ next big task is. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The nine Merlin 1D engines that the Falcon 9 rocket utilizes have also encounter problems that have raised concerns about their safety when used to send astronauts on their way to the ISS.

While Shotwell expressed confidence the cracks (see video below) that appeared in the turbines of Merlin 1D engines would not be an issue. The GAO Report was less sanguine about the matter. NASA had stated that the issue represented an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. The report went on to note that: …this risk will not be closed until SpaceX successfully completes qualification testing in accordance with NASA’s standards without any cracks. 

NASA has also expressed concerns about fueling the rocket with crew already perched atop. However, the agency appeared to be softening their stance on this matter. Amos-6 was also on top of the Falcon 9 when the explosion occurred. It is unclear if this issue continues to present a problem in terms of how SpaceX is planning to launch crew. SpaceX responded to the issues raised by agreeing to demonstrate the viability of their fueling procedures:

“To better understand the propellant loading procedures, the program and SpaceX agreed to demonstrate the loading process five times from the launch site in the final crew configuration prior to the crewed flight test. The five events include the uncrewed flight test and the in-flight abort test. Therefore, delays to those events would lead to delays to the agreed upon demonstrations, which could in turn delay the crewed flight test and
certification milestone.”

Not including the CRS-7 anomaly, SpaceX has had no issues accomplishing regular supply runs to the International Space Station via the uncrewed cargo variant of its Dragon spacecraft. The last Commercial Resupply Services (CRS-15) Dragon was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 on June 29, 2018. 

Despite the GAO Report’s tone, which might have been fostered by information provided this Spring, SpaceX has made progress toward returning the ability to launch astronauts on its own to the U.S.

A Crew Dragon spacecraft was delivered to Kennedy Space Center in Florida this week in preparation for its first flight. The vehicle had only just recently completed thermal vacuum and acoustic testing in Ohio at NASA’s Plum Brook Station.

The GAO stated that further delays in this schedule are “likely.” The core theme of the Report focuses on crew safety and while both contractors have made progress, risks remain. Per the Report:

“NASA’s certification process addresses the safety of the contractors’ crew transportation systems through several mechanisms, but there are factors that complicate the process. One of these factors is the loss of crew metric that was put in place to capture the probability of death or permanent disability to an astronaut. NASA has not identified a consistent approach for how to assess loss of crew. As a result, officials across NASA have multiple ways of assessing the metric that may yield different results. Consequently, the risk tolerance level that NASA is accepting with loss of crew varies based upon which entity is presenting the results of its assessment. Federal internal controls state that management should define risk tolerances so they are clear and measurable. Without a consistent approach for assessing the metric, the agency as a whole may not clearly capture or document its risk tolerance with respect to loss of crew.”

In the 2014 NASA awarded firm-fixed price contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, worth an estimated $6.8 billion. In an article appearing on Business Insider published in 2016 it was estimated that the agency at that time had paid Russia $3.37 billion to send astronauts to the ISS. Seats on board the Soyuz spacecraft, which can trace its lineage back to 1966 are estimated at costing more than $70 million per seat.

For NASA, the GAO Report likely means further reliance on Russia for access to the ISS. This is a status that has existed since July 21, 2011, when the last space shuttle mission, STS-135 was carried out aboard Atlantis – which now resides at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex – a popular tourist destination. The two other shuttle orbiters that were flight worthy, Discovery and Endeavour, rest in museums located in Virginia and California (respectively).

SpaceFlight Insider reached out to representatives with NASA and Boeing regarding the report’s findings. As of the publication of this article, we have not received a response.

Video courtesy of SpaceFlight Insider

 

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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.



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