GAO report indicates NASA forcing more delays in commercial crew


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A Government Accountability Office report released today suggests that NASA’s complex certification requirements will cause further delays in first operational missions of the commercial crew capsules of Boeing and SpaceX.

The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes. [emphasis mine]

This does not surprise me. From the beginning of commercial crew there have been people at NASA working to slow SpaceX down so as to not embarrass Boeing as well as SLS/Orion. By using the “complex certification process,” which really has little to do with engineering and everything to do with bureaucracy and power politics, NASA has effectively succeeded in preventing SpaceX from getting off the ground. The company could have flown a manned Dragon at least a year ago, if NASA had not stood in the way and imposed numerous safety demands, some of which make no sense.

Meanwhile, NASA’s bureaucracy and certification process has created a situation where neither company might be ready to fly when the ticketed flights on Russian Soyuz capsules end. To solve this gap the agency is actually thinking of stretching out ISS missions so it doesn’t have to fly ferry missions as much. While longer missions to ISS make sense — if your goal is to learn how to get to Mars — this isn’t why NASA is thinking of doing it. Instead, it is doing it so that it can make private space, especially SpaceX, look bad.

All in all, NASA’s management seems entirely uninterested in real space exploration, and the risks it entails. Instead, they are focused on power politics and serving the needs of the big space contractors that they have worked with for decades, accomplishing little while spending a lot of taxpayer dollars.

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3 comments

  • born01930

    I wonder why Musk doesn’t start flying a non-NASA certed craft with paying tourists? 3 @ $30M a pop should cover the costs send ’em up for a week at a time.

  • Col Beausabre

    (t’s called “regulatory capture” (a subset of rent seeking behavior)

    “Regulatory capture is a form of government failure which occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or political concerns of special interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.[1] When regulatory capture occurs, the interests of firms or political groups are prioritized over the interests of the public, leading to a net loss for society. Government agencies suffering regulatory capture are called “captured agencies”.”

    More

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regulatory_capture

  • Edward

    With the certification delay, Boeing may be able to sell NASA the last three Soyuz seats that they have, due to the Sea Launch fiasco.

    One of the things that the upstart startup SpaceX has invented is the rapid, inexpensive development of space hardware. One of the reasons that people were skeptical early in SpaceX’s life is that they could not believe that such large projects could become operational so fast by such a lightly funded company. Within a decade, Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 were developed and flown, and Falcon 9 became operational. In half a decade, SpaceX developed the landable, reusable first stage. In less than a decade and for around half a billion dollars, SpaceX developed and launched their Falcon Heavy, which is 2/3 as capable as NASA’s SLS, started around the same time as Falcon Heavy development but costing more than 40 times as much just to develop.

    As noted, SpaceX’s development of Crewed Dragon is being hampered in order to avoid embarrassing the traditional manufacturer.

    Interestingly, the United States had once been perfectly capable of performing development of flight systems in short periods of time. This is how we got the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo projects operational within a decade. SpaceX’s contribution, or innovation, is doing successful development inexpensively. This is an important industrial capability for expanding into space, as we need to get the total cost of exploration, use, and expansion down to affordable levels. Even Bezos’s Blue Origin is burning through a billion dollars per year to develop its two or three rockets and spacecraft, so not everyone is yet doing their development for truly low costs.

    The lack of affordability is why we didn’t see the dreams of the 1960s come true starting in the 1980s, because the Space Shuttle turned out to be too expensive and flew too infrequently to do the job. Now that various launch companies are finding ways to inexpensively put various sized payloads into space, the industry is seeing many new projects and proposals than ever before — not just dreams but hardware.

    Too bad NASA is hampering rather than helping this effort.

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