First Commercial Flights to ISS Slide Toward 2020

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Early in the classic police comedy, The Naked Gun, Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is at the hospital with partner Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) visiting the critically wounded Officer Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), who had been shot and left for dead by a group of heroin smuggling thugs.

“Doctors say that Nordberg has a 50/50 chance of living, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that,” Ed tells Frank.

A similar scene played out Wednesday morning during the House Space Subcommittee’s hearing on the progress of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Only it wasn’t nearly as funny.

Boeing’s John Mulholland and SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann sat side by side at the witness table saying that their companies were on track to conduct flight tests of their Starliner and Dragon 2 vehicles to the International Space Station (ISS), become certified by NASA, and begin flying astronauts on a commercial basis (PCM-1) on the current official schedule below.

Credit: NASA ASAP & Parabolic Arc

At the same table, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Cristina Chaplain testified that there was little chance of any of this happening on that timetable.

“The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and, based on our ongoing work, 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,” Chaplain said in her written testimony.

So, why is there a major discrepancy between the official schedule NASA updates every quarter and the space agency’s much less optimistic internal one? Chaplain’s testimony recounts the explanation given by NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders.

The Commercial Crew Program manager stated that differences between the contractors’ proposed schedules and the program’s schedule risk analysis include the following:

  • The contractors are aggressive and use their schedule dates to motivate their teams, while NASA adds additional schedule margin for testing.
  • Both contractors assume an efficiency factor in getting to the crewed flight test that NASA does not factor into its analysis.

The program manager explained further that the program meets with each contractor monthly to discuss schedules and everyone agrees to the relationships between events in the schedule even if they disagree on the length of time required to complete events. The program manager added, however, that she relies on her prior experience for a better sense of schedule timeframes as opposed to relying on the contractors’ schedules.

If NASA’s internal schedule assessment is correct, the space agency has a serious problem on its hands. It has only booked seats for its astronauts on Russian spacecraft through Soyuz 59, which is currently scheduled to take off in May 2019 and land six months later. It takes Russia about three years to build a new Soyuz.

NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier said the space agency is working on options to maintain a continuous U.S. presence on the space station if the providers’ schedules continue to slip. He did not provide any details.

So, what are causing the delays? Boeing and SpaceX have a lot of work to do, and they don’t have much time to do it in if they want to fly their vehicles this year.

For example, Boeing is dealing with issues relating to its abort system, heat shield and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V booster, according to Chaplain’s testimony. SpaceX is dealing with a redesign of its helium tanks — which caused an explosion of a Falcon 9 on the launch pad in September 2016 — as well as addressing whether to load the crew aboard before or after the booster is fueled.

NASA is also going to be very busy overseeing the Commercial Crew Program as it nears completion, as the GAO found when it reviewed the program in February 2017.

“At that time, program officials told us that one of their greatest upcoming challenges will be to keep pace with the contractors’ schedules so that the program does not delay certification,” according to Chaplain’s written testimony. “Specifically, they told us they are concerned about an upcoming ‘bow wave’ of work because the program must complete two oversight activities—phased safety reviews and verification closure notices—concurrently in order to support the contractors’ design certification reviews, uncrewed and crewed flight test missions, and final certification.”