The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a worrisome report this week concerning NASA's Commercial Crew Program. It seems NASA is in danger of losing access to the International Space Station (ISS) for nine months or more.
The issue stems from the fact that currently, Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft is the only approved ship for sending astronauts to the space station. However, NASA’s contract granting access to the Russian craft is due to run out in November of 2019.
NASA has been working with both Boeing and SpaceX on producing crewed ships in its Commercial Crew Program. The projects are underway with SpaceX's Crew Dragon set to launch the first test next month at the Kennedy Space Station.
Significant delays experienced
However, both projects have already seen significant delays. The contracts, estimated to total together an exorbitant $6.8 billion, were both supposed to deliver their ships by 2017.
In good news, SpaceX's Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner are both expected to be ready in 2019. However, GOA has now identified some new hurdles for NASA's crewed crafts.
"Before any missions happen, NASA will have to certify that both contractors' vehicles are safe for human spaceflight. One way that NASA will assess safety is the loss of crew metric, which captures the probability of a crew member's death or disability," states the report.
The report specifies that "NASA doesn't have a consistent approach for calculating this metric" and proceeds to give five "valid" recommendations for NASA to fulfill. These include developing a "contingency plan for ensuring a presence on the ISS until a Commercial Crew Program contractor is certified," the documentation of lessons learned related to loss of crew and the inclusion of risk analysis results in mandatory quarterly reports to Congress.
No help provided
GAO states that the "earliest and latest possible completion dates for certification" indicate a "potential gap in access of at least 9 months" or longer but fails to provide any input on how NASA can meet the demands in time. It furthermore eliminates any hope of NASA acquiring more seats in Soyuz while waiting for its vessels to be approved.
“Obtaining additional Soyuz seats seems unlikely, as the process for manufacturing the spacecraft and contracting for those seats typically takes 3 years—meaning additional seats would not be available before 2021,” specifies GAO. The report does mention some options for access to the ISS being considered by NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations but offers no support for either one.
Instead, GAO simply warns that "if NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the U.S. policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met."