NASA commercial crew program for space station faces delays, report says

The Souyz-2 spacecraft with Meteor-M satellite and 18
additional small satellites launches from Russia's new Vostochny

The Souyz-2 spacecraft with Meteor-M satellite and 18 additional small satellites launches from Russia's new Vostochny cosmodrome

But the report from the Government Accountability Office indicates that the problems could cause delays in the launch of the first manned mission in the United States of a private company and could result in a nine-month interval in which astronauts do not inhabit the ISS. The Associated Press says the US has paid Moscow up to $82 million a seat for the ride into orbit.

It says NASA is considering options. Based on an analysis conducted in April, the GAO estimates an average certification date for the companies at December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX. Negotiating a new contract could be hard and, in any case, Russian Federation has said in the past it takes three years to build a Soyuz so there is insufficient time.

NASA hopes to piggyback off the success of the resupply program with commercial crew, which has Boeing and SpaceX racing to become the first in the private sector to send a human into orbit.

Both companies have been shooting for test flights by the end of this year.

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. NASA's own space shuttle program already ended by then, and the agency began to award nearly $7 billion in contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to develop crew vehicles and perform flight demonstrations.

"Without a viable contingency option for ensuring uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of further commercial crew delays, we concluded that NASA was at risk of not being able to maximize the return on its multibillion dollar investment in the space station", it added. Of the five recommendations, NASA agreed with three of them; the only one it fully "non-concurred with" was a recommendation to report its schedule analysis directly to Congress.

GAO again recommended that NASA decide on a contingency plan.

"NASA is protecting for future schedule adjustments", they continued, and will work to "ensure the partners' schedules and NASA's internal assessments are in agreement" as the systems get closer to launch. The certification is necessary for NASA to confirm that the systems are suitable for taking humans into space.

One of the issues highlighted in today's report is that the companies and various parts of NASA have inconsistent views of the Loss of Crew (LOC) requirement that the companies must meet. GAO provided a chart comparing how the the agency certification process, the CCP program office, the contracts with the companies, and NASA's SMA Office set the requirement, whether the updated or former debris model is used, and whether mitigation measures are taken into account. GAO raised this issue previous year with regard to how NASA's human exploration program is organized. That plan will be complete by the end of December, the agency said in its response.

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