More delays likely for return to launching astronauts from US, GAO report shows

Boeing, SpaceX spacecraft undergoing certification to launch NASA astronauts

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

On the left, NASA astronaut Suni Williams, fully suited in SpaceX’s spacesuit, interfaces with the display inside a mock-up of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in California, during a testing exercise on April 3, 2018. On the right, NASA astronauts…

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - SpaceX and Boeing are not likely to be ready to launch NASA astronauts on missions from Cape Canaveral until 2020 which could leave a gap without U.S. astronauts on the International Space Station for the first time, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Both commercial companies were selected by NASA in 2014 to shuttle astronauts to and from the Space Station as part of the commercial crew program. The U.S. space agency has been paying the Russian Space Agency to launch its astronauts since the Space Shuttle Program ended in 2011.

SpaceX and Boeing officials most recently said they would be ready to begin launch testing at the end of this year. However, according to the GAO report submitted to congressional committees in July on the commercial crew program, neither company’s spacecraft is close to completing the certification milestone to launch crew. The report was based on information from an April analysis.

Both companies told NASA in June that according to the GAO report, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner will not achieve the critical certification until January and February of next year. NASA officials told the GAO they believe those dates are also likely to change, the report says.

“NASA is managing a multibillion dollar program without confidence in its schedule information as it approaches several big events, including uncrewed and crewed flight tests,” according to the report.


The GAO analysis, which is an estimate, puts the Starliner’s possible first launch to the Space Station at no earlier than December 2019 and January 2020 for the Crew Dragon.

If NASA is unable to begin launching U.S. astronauts from Cape Canaveral until late 2020, it would leave a possible nine-month gap in NASA’s access to ISS, according to the report.

"NASA is managing a multibillion-dollar program without confidence in its schedule information as it approaches several big events, including uncrewed and crewed flight tests," the report says.

The GAO recommended NASA come up with a contingency plan to continue uninterrupted access to the space station as well as clarify how the agency will determine “risk tolerance for loss of astronauts” with the commercial program.

NASA officials have said they are working on options to address the gap, but that planning is difficult because of “the extensive international negotiations required for some options.” It’s not as if NASA can just ask Russia to save its astronauts seats on the Roscosmos Soyuz, as contracting those seats takes about three years.

SpaceX and Boeing have continued testing their spacecraft, all as part of the lengthy certification process. Most recently, SpaceX conducted its 16th Crew Dragon parachute test in California checking the spacecraft's ability to slow down for a safe landing in case of a launch abort.

Commercial crew astronauts began in April conducting fully suited exercises and simulations inside mock-ups of both SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft.

On June 20, SpaceX posted a photo of the Crew Dragon at NASA’s Plum Brook Station testing facility in Ohio where the spacecraft was placed in a thermal vacuum chamber to test its ability to withstand extreme temperatures.

“Once complete, Crew Dragon will travel to Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of its first flight,” SpaceX’s Instagram post said under the photo.

According to NASA.gov, SpaceX is targeting August for its first uncrewed test flight and December for the first flight with crew on board.

A Boeing Starliner team communication official said the spacecraft is still undergoing testing and Boeing is targeting late August for its first uncrewed test flight from Cape Canaveral. According to NASA, the Starliner could launch in November on its first crewed test flight.

The test flights with and without astronauts are all part of the NASA certification process.

After multiple test flights, NASA can come back to SpaceX and Boeing and could ask them to make changes or take further steps before a final decision is made about whether the spacecraft is ready to fly astronauts.

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