Commercial Crew program could face more delays

January 22, 2018

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Commercial Crew program this weekend. At a Wednesday hearing by the House space subcommittee on the program, the US Government Accountability Office provided a report that called the published schedule in to question. The GAO provides oversight on big programs like Commercial Crew.

The report specifically calls into question the certification date of the two spacecraft being developed under the program. From the SpaceNews article by Jeff Foust:

Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, said in her testimony that despite current schedules, which call for certifying both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in the first quarter of 2019 after the completion of planned uncrewed and crewed test flights late this year, NASA’s own estimates project that certification to be significantly delayed.

“We found that the program’s own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing,” she said. Those certifications are required before the vehicles can begin regular crew rotation flights to and from the International Space Station

A year’s delay is pretty significant. I asked myself how the companies could be so out of sync with the GAO. Chaplain helps me out:

Chaplain said the companies assumed aggressive schedules, in part to motivate their teams working on the vehicles, assumptions NASA does not necessarily accept. “According to NASA, both contractors assumed an efficiency factor in getting to the crewed flight test that the program office does not assume in its schedule,” she said.

This kind of made me chuckle. I work in business and this strategy is all too familiar to me. Pick an aggressive schedule, speak of it like it’s law, and kick everyone into gear to meet it. Even if it’s not realistic and you overshoot by a bit, the fabricated urgency can still move your timelines to the left. It’s the same as when you tell that one friend who never shows up on time to arrive to the party 30 minutes before everyone else, just to get them there along with everyone else.

FYI – I covered Commercial Crew’s GAO report, along with the rest of the Mars headlines for the week, on the most recent edition of the Red Planet Review, a weekly podcast. It’s available to our Patreon supporters and I think you’d like it.

Become a Lander-level ($3+) Patron to hear me discuss Commercial Crew on Red Planet Review

Soyuz Manifest

The Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome July 7, 2016 Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Delays happen in spaceflight. But the tough part for NASA here is that if Commercial Crew doesn’t come online in late 2019, they won’t have access to space. NASA currently has seats booked on Russian Soyuz spacecraft until 2019. Here’s the best I could determine for upcoming crew manifests, to help you understand it.

  • Soyuz MS-08 – March 9th 2018
    • 1 Russian, 2 Americans
  • Soyuz MS-09 – April 25th 2018
    • 1 Russian, 1 American, 1 European
  • Soyuz MS-10 – September 30th 2018
    • 2 Russians, 1 American
  • Soyuz MS-11 – November 30th 2018
    • 1 Russian, 1 American, 1 Canadian
  • Soyuz MS-12 – March 30th 2019
    • 2 Russians, 1 American
  • Soyuz MS-13 – September 13th, 2019
    • 1 Russian, 1 American, 1 European

One thing I couldn’t determine was which of these flights were part of the option NASA exercised to acquire three more Soyuz seats from Boeing as part of the Energia settlement last year. The best I can determine is that they were in 2019. With just two Americans on the manifest in 2019, that could mean there is one more seat unaccounted for. It could also be accounted for by the European seat on MS-13, though. Since government agencies can’t pay each other for services, the collaboration of the International Space Station sometimes results in a lot of weird “swaps” to track member contributions. I believe ESA’s contributions of the service module to NASA’s Orion spacecraft is part of their contributions, so NASA might have to give that seat to them in exchange. If you know for sure, please let me know.

Nonetheless, NASA’s in a tough spot. Soyuz spacecraft have a three year lead time from order to flight, so additional ones cannot be procured for 2019 or 2020.  At the hearing, NASA said it was exploring “additional options” to get people to the station. One possibility is to procure the existing Soyuz seats already ordered for this time period. Russia reduced their crew complement on the station from 3 to 2, but as far as I can tell never actually reduced the planned Soyuz flights. By sticking to four flights per year, they could monetize the flights by reviving a tourist program they once flew in the first decade of this century. Maybe NASA could purchase them? We’ll need to wait to find out.

ISS Future

One more thought on this, though. Plans to operate the ISS only go til 2024. If the Commercial Crew flights aren’t certified until 2020, that leaves just 4 years for NASA to get return on the investment it made into these companies. Each additional delay reduces that window further. Given the delays with SLS, NASA’s missing Administrator, and the recent pivot to a human lunar program that will certainly cascade delays as any major change would, it is increasingly likely that NASA will seek to continue operation of the station until 2028.

I’m a big fan of the ISS. It’s done a tremendous job engaging people, forging international relationships, delivering great science, and serving as a platform to kickstart a spaceflight economy. We wouldn’t have Bigelow Aerospace testing their Expandable Module without it. But the idea of operating it for another 10 years at the expense of deep space exploration is a tough pill to swallow for a Martian like me. As I said, delays happen in spaceflight, but just because it’s common doesn’t make it any more enjoyable.

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