GAO: Accelerating Commercial Crew Schedule Poses Risks

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s plan to move up the start of operational crew missions to the International Space Station (ISS) by Boeing and SpaceX could pose serious safety risks, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“NASA’s plans to compress the transition from completing certification to the start of operational mission may not leave enough time to complete key reviews,” the GAO said. “It also remains to be seen whether either contractor can finish manufacturing the hardware and training the astronauts in order to support NASA’s planned time frames.”

[Full Report]

NASA is facing a challenge maintaining crew presence on the station with both companies running more than three years behind schedule. The space agency will have only one American astronaut on the station beginning in April and none by October after that astronaut returns to Earth.

NASA is currently negotiating with Roscosmos to purchase an additional seat aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to fill any gap in the fall.

Boeing and SpaceX have completed automated flights of their Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively. These will be followed by crewed test flights to ISS later this year followed by the first operational missions.

After a successful in-flight abort test last month, SpaceX is targeting the second quarter for the crewed flight test. Boeing might need to repeat the automated mission before the crew test because Starliner did not reach the space station during its flight in December due to an anomaly.

SpaceX and Boeing have said they can extend what were planned to be short crewed flight tests to boost the number of American astronauts on the space station. Just how long the extended stays might last is unclear.

After the flight tests are completed, NASA was scheduled to work with Boeing and SpaceX to certify that the systems meet all requirements for human spaceflight and then conduct flight readiness reviews for the first Crew Dragon and Starliner operational missions.

GAO is concerned because NASA now plans to complete the certification and flight readiness steps concurrently instead of conducting them sequentially. The flight readiness review was scheduled to begin four-months prior to the operational flight.

“If NASA continues to pursue this path, the overlap of NASA’s two processes introduces schedule risk because of the compression of several activities in a 4-month window and the completion of key events—including the crewed test flight and certification—closer to the first operational mission than originally planned,” the report stated.

“Program officials told us that they believed this concurrent approach was doable because they will have completed the majority of work to support certification prior to each contractor’s crewed test flight,” the report added.

GAO also raised concerns about the workload on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program office. Space agency officials stated that the office is working at full capacity and that they are trying to bring in additional staff from other areas to help ease the burden.

The GAO report said that both companies have a lot of work to finish before operational flights can begin. The work could also interfere with the accelerated schedule.

The explosion of a Crew Dragon intended for an in-flight abort flight last April has required SpaceX to simultaneously conduct a failure investigation, incorporate modifications into future spacecraft, and accelerate its production schedule.

The Crew Dragon intended for use on the first crewed flight test had to be used for the in-flight abort instead. It cannot be refurbished for flight due to the stresses it experienced in the abort. SpaceX has accelerated production of the next two Crew Dragon vehicles.

To support an operational mission in March 2020, program officials told us that SpaceX plans to complete construction of flight spacecraft 4—now the first operational mission spacecraft—3 months earlier than originally planned.

SpaceX and program officials identified two reasons why this acceleration may be possible. First, they told us there will likely be manufacturing efficiencies that could allow SpaceX to meet the accelerated schedule for its first operational mission.

Program officials said the spacecraft design for the first operational mission is the same as the other spacecraft, and that this would be SpaceX’s fourth time building the spacecraft. Second, SpaceX officials said they modified their facilities and brought in additional resources.

GAO questioned whether SpaceX coud make the planned schedule. The government watchdog said it might need to incorporate additional hardware changes resulting from the Crew Dragon explosion last year, the in-flight abort test conducted in January, and the crewed flight test later this year.

SpaceX also conducted a series of parachute tests during the final months of 2019 whose results are being evaluated by NASA. The GAO report identified two other issues as well.

“SpaceX continues to address technical risks identified by program officials. These include (1) SpaceX’s plan to conduct launch vehicle propellant loading procedures after the astronauts are on board and (2) the design of its launch vehicle engine.

The propellant loading procedure risk remains open because, as of November 2019, SpaceX still needed to demonstrate the loading process at several upcoming events, including the in-flight abort test. The launch vehicle engine risk remains open because SpaceX needed to complete the required follow-on test campaign of its engines as of November 2019.

Boeing has two capsules in production. It had planned to fly the crewed test with one and refurbish the Starliner it used on its automated flight for the first operational mission. The company has estimated that process would take four months. GAO noted that it could take longer because Boeing has never refurbished a Starliner before.

Boeing’s schedule for the year is uncertain because NASA has not decided whether it will require the company to re-fly the automated mission that failed to dock with the station in December.

Boeing and NASA are still investigating a software timing error that prevented Starliner’s engine from firing as planned to raise its orbit for a rendezvous with ISS. The spacecraft’s thrusters were also over stressed when they fired outside planned operating parameters to get Starliner into a safe orbit. (The Atlas V booster, as planned, had placed the vehicle into a suborbital trajectory.)

GAO reports that Boeing is also working a number of technical issues.

This includes a risk that the initiators that trigger separation events, such as the separation of the crew and service module prior to reentry, may generate debris and damage the spacecraft. In June 2019, we found that Boeing had identified a solution to contain the debris that was sufficient for its test flights.

Since our last report, program officials said that a number of problems were found in recent testing and that the independent engineering technical authority noted that the current initiator containment design is not acceptable for the crewed flight test. Program officials told us that they accepted this risk for the uncrewed flight test, but that additional testing will need to occur before the crewed flight test.

Finally, both Boeing and Space need to finalize and execute astronaut training plans before they can fly operational missions. GAO said the companies might need additional time for the training.

NASA officials said that it is not possible to know how much time will be needed to incorporate lessons learned from the crewed test flights into the training plans. However, NASA officials estimated that the program and the contractors could need 3 to 6 months after their crewed test flights to update and finalize training before the first operational missions.

NASA officials said they and the contractors would need this time to incorporate lessons learned from the crewed test flight into the training program, complete astronaut training, and prepare for the first operational mission flight readiness review.

Before conducting any flights, SpaceX and Boeing must obtain launch licenses from the Federation Aviation Administration (FAA). GAO cited a concern about this process.

The FAA can grant waivers to launch requirements such as flight trajectories as long as the changes do not affect public safety. NASA needs to ensure those waivers do not affect crew safety.

The two agencies accepted GAO’s recommendation that they finalize how they will coordinate on the granting of waivers. FAA officials said a draft plan was in the works at the end of last year.

A summary of the GAO report follows.

NASA Commercial Crew Program: Significant Work Remains to Begin Operational Missions to the Space Station

Report to Congressional Committees
Government Accountability Office
January 2020

Full Report

Why This Matters

Since retiring the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has depended on Russia to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is a multibillion dollar effort to re-establish a U.S. capability to get a crew to space, but it is years behind schedule. NASA may have to continue to rely on the Russian transport option or risk losing access to the ISS in 2020.

Key Takeaways

NASA will have fewer astronauts on the ISS in 2020 unless the Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft are ready to fly missions, but significant work remains for both. NASA has few back-up options if delays continue and will have only one astronaut on the U.S. side by April 2020. Most of this astronaut’s time will be spent on maintenance activities rather than on research and development.

To fly as soon as possible, NASA has been planning to complete its reviews of the contractors’ systems under aggressive time frames. This approach is risky because it assumes the contractors will complete multiple activities on time. Boeing and SpaceX must conduct additional test flights, train astronauts, and get a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

FAA licenses cover the contractors’ launch and reentry activities. FAA may grant waivers for changes to the license that do not jeopardize public safety. For example, FAA may grant waivers for changes in launch trajectory. NASA needs to know when such changes have been made in case they affect the crew. While NASA and FAA have coordinated on launch licensing for years, they have not yet decided how they will communicate about waivers. As a result, NASA may not have all the information it needs for launch decisions.

What GAO Recommends

We recommended in 2018 that NASA develop a plan to maintain access to the ISS; this recommendation has yet to be implemented. In this report, we add two recommendations to improve communications on waivers between NASA and FAA. Both agencies agreed.

Recommendation 1: The NASA Administrator should ensure that NASA documents how NASA and FAA will communicate about any waivers granted during the licensing process for a Commercial Crew Program mission before an operational mission is conducted. (Recommendation 1)

Recommendation 2: The FAA Administrator should ensure that FAA documents how NASA and FAA will communicate about any waivers granted during the licensing process for a Commercial Crew Program mission before an operational mission is conducted.

How GAO Did This Study

We reviewed NASA and FAA’s memorandum of understanding and joint program management plan, and program and contract documents. We interviewed NASA, FAA, Boeing, and SpaceX officials to understand progress toward the mission and the extent to which NASA and FAA have coordinated.