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While SpaceX and Boeing prepare to fly their new capsules, the Congress emphasizes the safety of the crew



If all goes according to plan, this year could be the first time since 2011 that US astronauts will take off to the International Space Station on a US spacecraft.

It has been a long process to get to this point. The delays in the schedule delayed the first manned tests of the new capsules of transport of astronauts constructed separately by Boeing Co. and SpaceX under contracts of the NASA. And the two companies have yet to complete the additional tests and address the lingering safety concerns before reaching that milestone.

On Wednesday morning, a message from lawmakers was clear: security is paramount.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), a senior member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, warned the company's executives and NASA officials during a hearing of a space subcommittee that "they can not afford the luxury of taking shortcuts "to avoid a possible gap Access by EE. UU To the space station.

The US contract UU With the Russian space agency to bring American astronauts to the space station will end in 2019. That is the same year that NASA will certify the SpaceX and Boeing vehicles for service, although the official of the US Government Accountability Office. UU He cautioned that the certification date would "probably slip" for SpaceX in February 2019 and Boeing for February 2020.

Currently, the US UU They pay between 70 and 80 million dollars per seat so that astronauts can travel to the space station in a Russian Soyuz vehicle.

Legislators were also determined about the delays that have pushed return flight flights. Originally, the two companies had to certify their capsules for operational missions by 2017.

"Taxpayers and Congress do not have infinite budgets or infinite patience," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House committee. . "Contractors should not assume that taxpayers and Congress will continue to tolerate this."

Congress leaders questioned Boeing and SpaceX executives on Wednesday about security issues. They looked for more information about the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch the Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule, as well as previous incidents with SpaceX hardware and plans to have astronauts on board the Crew Dragon capsule while the Falcon 9 rocket is loaded with gas .

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of construction and flight reliability at SpaceX, said in the audience that the space company Hawthorne believes that this faster method of loading fuel is safer than traditional methods because loading a denser propellant minimizes the Exposure time to fuel hazards.

He said that the abort system of the capsule launchpad, which would take astronauts off the launch vehicle in case of emergency, would be occupied during fuel loading.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations management, said the agency was reviewing the process and the potential risks, and that it would determine the appropriate time to put the crew on board.

The commercial crew program represents a change for NASA In the past, the agency awarded contracts to private companies to build vehicles and spacecraft designed by NASA With this program, NASA instead will buy a service, instead of the vehicle, very similar to the contracts it grants to private companies such as Orbital ATK and SpaceX to transport supplies to the space station.

This could serve as a model for future collaboration, allowing commercial companies to gain more experience and expand into new services that could once have been government competition, said David Barnhart, director of the center and space engineering research at USC.

"I tend to think that it is the future, in that government, the elements will obtain services that are not necessarily research innovations or distant," he said.

Boeing's Starliner capsule, a version of which is being tested at the company's Huntington Beach facility, with additional tests to enter The SpaceX's Second – and Crew Dragon will fly unmanned in August. The first manned test flight of Boeing is scheduled for November, and SpaceX will do it a month later.

Although similar in form to the capsules of the Apollo lunar exploration era, these next-generation spacecraft take advantage of technological advances such as touchscreens and increased automation. The Boeing and SpaceX contracts with NASA for the vehicles are worth a combined total of up to $ 6.8 billion.

Both Koenigsmann and John Mulholland, vice president and business program manager for Boeing, diverted a question about how much each company had invested. their vehicles, saying they did not have that information with them.

The hearing comes just two weeks after SpaceX launched the classified Zuma satellite, which was reportedly lost.

Northrop Grumman Corp., the satellite builder, has said it would not comment on classified missions. When asked about the mission during the hearing, Koenigsmann reiterated the firm message from SpaceX that the Falcon 9 rocket "worked very well" and that the company was continuing its other missions.

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

Twitter: @smasunaga


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