Advisory Committee Wants NASA Contingency Plans for Possible Commercial Crew Delays

Space News
reports that a key NASA advisory committee wants the space agency to come up with contingency plans to operate the International Space Station on a reduced U.S. crew should further delays occur in the commercial crew program.

At a May 14 meeting of the ISS Advisory Committee, its chairman, Thomas Stafford, said that NASA should consider training Russian cosmonauts on key systems in what’s known as the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) portion of the ISS, which includes elements from the U.S., Europe, Japan and Canada, in the event extended commercial crew development delays reduce the size of the station’s crew.

“For years, we have observed delays after delays in the development, flight test and qualification milestones in commercial crew, and therefore we believe the current schedule is optimistic,” Stafford said of schedules that call for flight tests of commercial crew vehicles in the latter half of 2018.

His committee recommended that NASA and the other ISS partners should plan for ways to operate the station with a reduced crew if commercial crew vehicles aren’t ready to enter service by the fall of 2019.

“Given these schedule risks, we recommend the partnership pursue plans to protect for a minimum crew capability to ensure ISS viability during the flight development phase,” he said. “NASA’s biggest priority is maintaining the U.S. presence on the ISS in case the commercial crew launch dates slip.”

  • ThomasLMatula

    The contingency plan should be the same as for the Shuttle, just write a wavier so the firms will be able to get on doing it without constant micromanagement of “safety issues”.

  • passinglurker

    Especially if they can beat Soyuz’s loss of crew odds at least so there really is no excuse.

  • windbourne

    Or the Shuttle’s OoC odds.

  • windbourne

    This is both funny and sad.
    “For years, we have observed delays after delays in the development, flight test and qualification milestones in commercial crew, and therefore we believe the current schedule is optimistic,”

    It was because of the GOP that we saw major cuts in funding for CCx. It was NOT because of Boeing or SX that we had delays. Now, the money is actually going to these companies. In addition, SX is down to 2 main R&D items; Dragon 2 and BFR. As such, I would be amazed if SX does not push heavy focus on Dragon 2 and get her flying this year. The F9 is done. It just has to go through vetting of 7 launches and a review.
    Dragon 2 is undergoing some minor development now and will be heading to Kennedy in a couple of months for its uncrewed test mission. I personally doubt that they will have any major issues show up during that. As such, it should be quick to do the flight abort and then crewed test. All by end of 2018, assuming that NASA does their part.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    IIRC it was either the ASAP or the ISS Advisory Committee that come up with the high 1 in 270 LOC goal for commercial crew, which no other man rated space vehicle have met in the past including the Orion. Strangely I couldn’t find any current projected LOC number for the Orion which I am guessing will always fly with a stack of waivers.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    If the BFS start hopping at the start of next year at Boca Chica. There is the scenario of SpaceX abandoning the Dragon program entirely if NASA drags their feet on the certification process.

    Since the Dragon program is a technology development dead end. There is no reason to continue if the replacement BFS is in concurrent development. If the Dragon is cancel by SpaceX, then NASA will either be accepting a switch to the BFR or find another domestic man rated vehicle with no additional funding.

    So the GOP’s attempt to kill commercial crew have succeed in a pyrrhic victory with the emergence of the BFS.

  • passinglurker

    This route basically kills the iss and commercial space stations period there is no way even on elon time to get bfb built and bfs manrated by the end of 2019.

  • This is just good risk mitigation. I’m much rather see some of the cosmonauts be ready to help out than to rush a crewed spacecraft before it’s ready.

  • windbourne

    I do not think that GOP was trying to kill CC, as much as kill all money to SX. The GOP wrote a letter to Bolden saying to cut funding down to 1-2 and they expected Boeing and SNC to win.

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    Contingency plans for the event of development program delays are generally a good thing to have.

    That said, I note that this is the same Thomas Stafford who was recently peddling the idea that SpaceX’s fundamental approach to loading their booster is unacceptably dangerous, explicitly because it’s different from how he’s used to seeing NASA operate boosters.

    NASA, as I understand it, has not yet given SpaceX a final answer on the point, but there are strong indications that if F9 Block 5 can do seven cargo flights in a row uneventfully, the answer will be “yes”. (I may be missing nuances in the current official NASA position.)

    I take this particular call for in essence turning Station over to the Russians if NASA won’t certify either Commercial Crew entrant in time as an attempt to make the case that further arbitrary Commercial Crew program delays of the sort he has called for are acceptable.

    I strongly disagree. If there’s a specific known safety problem with a crew ship, yes, take the time to fix it. But general discomfort with doing things in other than the traditional NASA way is no reason not to fly. Absent a specific quantifiable safety problem, fly. I expect there will be no lack of volunteers.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    More like 2021. There was one NASA OIG report that say commercial crew might not be operational until 2021.

    For the contracted for CRS-2 flights. The BFS could do SSTO to the ISS with maybe 6 tonnes of payload. Once you have what is more or less a man-rated vehicle docking at the ISS, then NASA will waiver the lack of paperwork. After all an operational spacecraft is more then what mountain of paperwork will be able to validated.

    The BFB is required to put 150 tonnes of payload in a BFS to LEO and to landed the BFS afterwards.

    Of course this discussion is only interesting if there is a hopping BFS in early 2019.

  • passinglurker

    BFS can’t ssto and land again you’d be throwing it away. No matter how you look at it this is unrealistic

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Musk say in the 2017 IAC that the BFS can get to LEO with almost no payload. That is a stock BFS transport to Mars not a BFS tanker with additional propellants and lower empty vehicle mass.

  • Here’s a music video from the ‘80s that seems to perfectly describe the situation:

  • ThomasLMatula

    The problem is NASA will need about a decade to develop an RFP for it, determine how it should be certified for astronauts and the fund the research program for certifying it so it will be able to fly to the ISS.

  • passinglurker

    *sigh* SSTO’s don’t suddenly “work” because you added more propellant brush up on your Tsiolkovsky.

  • duheagle

    The sticking point for Commercial Crew LOC numbers seems to be NASA’s notions about what the Micrometeorite and Orbital Debris (MMOD) risk is. This risk is much higher for a LEO spacecraft than for a deep space craft – which Orion allegedly is. So Orion’s LOC goal – whatever it is – may be easier to meet based on its intended operational parameters.

  • Michael Halpern

    Considering NASA has at no point said “no” to load and go this far into CCDev, and has instead said “we will look at the process and see if its safe and appropriate for the vehicles” paraphrasing but to me that was a “you don’t know what you are talking about, so let us make the decisions”

  • Zed_WEASEL

    IIRC the commercial crew LOC number is for exposure to MMOD for 172 days in orbit as the ISS lifeboat/return vehicle. In comparison the Orion in it’s current Lunar exclusion form only do mission maximum of 21 days in space due to life support limitations.

    So the daily MMOD risk in the Orion might be higher than commercial crew but have a shorter exposure period. The MMOD risk is cumulative with time in space.

    The MMOD damage on the ISS seems to show that with adequate shielding and system redundancy MMOD risk can be coped with. NASA appears to be asking for a higher level of safety margins than with the ISS currently. The requested higher margins drove up the cost and push the schedule to the right for both Boeing and SpaceX.

  • windbourne


  • therealdmt

    I keep wondering what Soyuz’s loss of crew odds are by NASA’s measures

  • ThomasLMatula

    You know, if NASA is able to just delay Commercial Crew by a couple of years, and reconfigure Orion to launch on the early version of the SLS, the one that only takes 70 tons to LEO, they could send the Orion to the ISS before Commercial Crew. And then, if they pull that off, they could just get rid of commercial crew, declare it a failure, and use an annual flight of the Orion/SLS to serve the ISS.

    It be a great way to set back commercial HSF for a decade or two and save their monopoly on it…

  • Henry Vanderbilt

    The thing is, NASA is *supposed* to say “no”. Or “yes”. The nature of the process is supposed to be, the contractor tells NASA how they’ll address some given NASA safety concern, and NASA then tells them reasonably promptly – two months is the official standard – whether that’s acceptable (and if not, what might be done to make it acceptable.)

    NASA dithering for years on responding to essential points like crew/propellant loading procedure is most of what’s cascading delays on Commercial Crew in the first place.

    NASA is in essence here reserving the right to say “no’ at the last second – which would throw a MASSIVE spanner in the works and lead to years more delay.

    Underlying this all (as I think you’re saying) is a political rift within NASA, with part of the agency very much wanting to return to the old days when NASA essentially dictated designs and contractors implemented them as ordered.

    And Thomas Stafford, all honor to his previous service, looks to me to be very unsubtly supporting that return to the bad old days here. I cannot read what he’s actually thinking, of course. He may well be acting out of nothing but sincere concern over safety. But the net combined effect of his positions on crew/propellant loading and now contingency plans is to enable the NASA faction that would prefer to kill the SpaceX crew project (perhaps retaining a suitably gelded Boeing crew vehicle as an interim backup option) while pursuing NASA taking over developing and operating all its own crewed vehicles again, forever and ever amen.

    (And I just now realized that if they kill Station in the process, for them that’s a twofer – they think it will free up more billions for them to endlessly fritter away a’ la’ SLS/Orion.)

    Given the demonstrated crippling costs and delays of that NASA HSF in-house development model, it would be a disaster for this country’s space ambitions if that NASA faction wins this fight.

  • Michael Halpern

    They haven’t said no yet, so that means it’s a “yes until further notice”

  • duheagle

    Yes, radically different mission duration is certainly a factor. But Orion is, at least in theory, going to be hauled there and back on NASA-conceived Mars missions too and I’ve heard nothing about NASA considering that class of notional Orion mission as too dangerous despite much lengthier duration than any ISS mission. The fact is that most of the MMOD risk in Earth orbit – especially LEO – is from the “OD” part of MMOD, not the “MM” part. LEO is full of 60 years of accumulated orbital schmutz.

    My personal view is that the U.S. should just unilaterally deploy laser sweepers and remediate orbital debris as a public service concomitant to doing something we very much need to do for reasons of our own. As I suspect NASA would take roughly forever plus tax to do such a thing, my fond hope is that SpaceX elects to do this sort of OD sweeping once the first phase of Starlink is on orbit and generating revenue. Improving the LOC number for Dragon 2 by main force may well be a moot point by that time, but it would be a minor side benefit of protecting the much more valuable Starlink constellation from 6+ decades of orbital litterbugging.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    A NASA astronaut is supposed travel to ISS, on a Soyuz, even after the start of the commercial crew service. So, NASA could buy a second Russian seat for $100 million or more.

  • Michael Halpern

    it was quite short sited, seeing as assured access priority on two separate launch vehicles, anyways