Boeing was one of three companies that bid on NASA's next contract to take astronauts into space. The company is offering its CST-100 space capsule in the competition. (Courtesy of Boeing)
NASA's audacious experiment in having contractors to provide a taxi service for its astronauts to the International Space Station faces problems that could delay the first flights and leave the space agency without the possibility of get your astronauts to the laboratory that orbits.
In prepared testimony presented to a Congressional hearing on the status of the program, the Office of Government Accountability said that "delays and uncertain final certification dates raise questions about whether the United States will have uninterrupted access to [space station] after of 2019. "
If SpaceX and Boeing, the companies NASA hired to take their astronauts into space, can not meet NASA's stringent requirements for manned space flights by the end of next year, the space agency I should continue to trust the Russians, who charge more than $ 80 million for a seat to throw Americans into orbit.
Failing that, NASA would face the ignominious prospect that the United States could not access the space station, in which it has spent billions of dollars to build and maintain.
"We are here today looking not at one, but at two companies that are behind, may not meet safety and reliability requirements and may even fall into cost overruns," said Brian Babin, (R-Tex. ), the chairman of the subcommittee of the House of Representatives.
He added that "the situation gets worse when we look at the security and reliability concerns surrounding these two new systems." As a result, NASA may have to seek additional funds or accept a higher risk. "None of those options is viable," he said.
NASA has not been able to send humans to the space station since the shuttle retired in 2011. Since then, the space agency has awarded contracts worth up to $ 6.8 billion in total to Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of flying humans to and from the station, which orbits the Earth at an altitude of approximately 250 miles.
The dependence of private sector companies to play a role that had traditionally been purely government-owned The domain was seen as a bold bet, which would free NASA to pursue more ambitious space missions.
While Boeing has a long heritage in space, dating back to the early days of the space age, and SpaceX has been supplying the station with cargo and supplies for years, both companies are struggling with deadlines and security issues in the so-called "commercial crew program".
Before flying humans, Boeing and SpaceX must overcome complex technical problems with their spacecraft, the GAO said. Boeing has a problem with his abortion system that can cause the ship to "fall", posing "a threat to the safety of the crew." Boeing is also concerned that when the spacecraft re-enters the Earth's atmosphere, the heat shield could be disconnected "and damaged". the parachute system, "the GAO found.
Before SpaceX can fly, NASA must first determine if it can safely feed its rocket while the astronauts are on board, a problem that both the GAO and the Security Agency Aerospace The panel said it could be a security risk.In 2016, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded in a massive fireball while it was being fed before an engine test.
By 2018, the program is in a This is a critical juncture, as NASA will have to close some key decisions on whether it believes that spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX will be able to meet the agency's rigorous safety standards.
In its annual report, the advisory panel NASA recently wrote that "we hope to see several important certification problems culminated within the next year that they will." They require NASA's risk acceptance decisions to be very high level within the agency. "
The hearing occurs when NASA recently announced that the calendar of SpaceX test flights has decreased. His flight without astronauts, which had been scheduled for March, is scheduled for August. And his flight with crew went back four months until December. Boeing plans an unmanned flight in August and one with astronauts in November, a month before SpaceX.
Boeing and SpaceX have been working for years to prepare their spacecraft to comply with NASA's rigorous safety standards.
its annual report, the NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel recently wrote that NASA "is adequately addressing safety, but human spaceflight is intrinsically risky." He pointed out that, in particular, orbital debris can represent a significant hazard. In space, even a small piece of debris, about the size of a screw, can wreak havoc when orbiting at more than 17,000 mph.
Although the program is delayed in its original schedule, the report warned about prioritizing the schedule over safety.
John Mulholland, manager of the Boeing commercial crew program, said the company is "progressing steadily to achieve certification" from NASA for its Starliner spacecraft. He added that the company exceeds "our requirements for the safety of the crew."
Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of construction and flight reliability at SpaceX, said SpaceX "completed almost all of the technical development," as it works to fly its first mission with astronauts by the end of the year.
William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA for Humans Exploration and Operations, said that both companies have made significant progress and that their success will help lay the foundation for a more accessible and sustainable future for manned space flights. "
But he added that the" schedule of this activity has taken longer than originally planned. "And he said next year" will be particularly challenging for our team as some of the toughest milestones are coming. "