More Delays Coming for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program?

I asked Eric what he meant by this Tweet. He said he was referring to a crewed test flight of either SpaceX’s Dragon or Boeing’s CST-100 sometime by the end of 2018. That would push back the first commercial mission into 2019.

SpaceX_Boeing_CC_Schedule_July2016a
The current schedules, which the space agency presented to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) late last month, are shown above. Below are the key milestones for each company with their current and original schedules.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner

Current Schedule

  • December 2017: Flight test without crew
  • February 2018: Flight test with crew
  • May 2018: Certification review for commercial flights

Original Schedule

  • January 2017: Orbital flight test (OFT) flight test readiness review (FTRR)
  • March 2017: Crewed flight test readiness review
  • August 2017: Certification review for commercial flights

SpaceX Crew Dragon

Current Schedule

  • May 2017: Flight test without crew
  • August 2017: Flight test with crew
  • October 2017: Certification review for commercial flights

Original Schedule

  • March 2016: Fight test without crew
  • October 2016: Flight test with crew
  • April 2017: Certification review for commercial flights

Note that Boeing did not give months for its two CST-100 Starliner flight tests; instead, it showed readiness reviews that would precede these missions. Based on the current schedule shown in the table above, we can infer that flights would have followed within a month or so of the reviews.

Boeing’s certification review, which would allow it to begin commercial flights, has slipped about nine months from August 2017 to May 2018. Boeing officials said they have been dealing acoustic load and weight issues with the capsule. They have said the weight is under control, and engineers are testing a solution for the acoustic load problem.

SpaceX has slipped 14 months on its first Dragon flight without a crew and 10 months on the crewed flight. Certification would occur in October 2017, only six months behind the original plan.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight, told the NAC last month that the current schedules are “optimistic but achievable.”

NAC members expressed their concern that NASA could face a gap in accessing the station if there are further delays in the program. The space agency has only contracted with Russia for seats on the Soyuz spacecraft through 2018.

During a Q&A earlier this week with two NASA astronauts assigned to the commercial crew program, Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders gave a vague answer about the progress of the two companies.

What is the progress of the Commercial Crew Program?

I think people forget about the time frame and how short the time has been that our partners have been working on the final development of their spacecraft. We awarded the contracts in September 2014. Right now, the companies are in the midst of this grueling periods of getting their vehicles together and getting their structural test articles together. We’re getting ready for flight tests. Most importantly, we’re getting there as fast as we can safely fly.

Unlike during previous rounds of Commercial Crew Program funding, NASA is not issuing press releases each time a company has successfully completed a milestone. There were fewer schedule during these earlier phases.

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  • JamesG

    Manned launch is not something to be rushed…

  • therealdmt

    Uh oh

  • duheagle

    The item to watch, I’d say, is SpaceX’s flight test without crew. If that slips again by a month or more before December, then 2017 is probably out even for a flight test with crew, never mind a contract flight. That would be disappointing, but not tragic. Even if SpaceX slips every current schedule date a full year, it should still be able to fly a contract crew flight before the end of 2018. But I don’t see any full year schedule slippage being likely.

    The slippages to-date have all occurred in fiscal years with smaller-than-requested CC budgets. Some of the accumulated slippage may actually be due to development difficulties. But I suspect some of it – quite possibly most of it – is also due to NASA ordering “planned holds” in the schedules so as to appear correct to Congress when their people have testified that less money will mean delays.

    The relative proportion of each of these causes to which the current aggregate schedule slippage is attributable is unknowable by me. But since NASA got what it asked for in this year’s budget – always assuming Congressional shenanigans don’t result in another continuing resolution – then any future slippages should be able to be attributed with confidence to actual development difficulties and not Potemkin Villages built to pressure Congress for more NASA funds.

  • This is a major potential safety issue. Most manned accidents: Apollo 1, Soyuz 1, Soyuz 11, Challenger, had serious time pressures associated with them such that known technical shortcomings were overlooked.

    If NASA wants to prevent an accident, buy an extra year or two of Soyuz seats NOW and gove everyone sufficient schedule relief.

  • Douglas Messier

    The Falcon 9 loss seems to have delayed things last year. There was a gap between June and November/December where no milestones were accomplished.

  • therealdmt

    Actually, listening to Shotwell’s keynote speech from the small sat conference just a few days ago, she said, “How exciting that the US will finally be able to fly our own astronauts again, and that should happen next year.” That was at about the 28:30 mark of the video of her speech that was put up on this site.

    So, you know, she basically just announced a delay to the Falcon Heavy debut in that same speech, but she not only didn’t make such a statement about crewed Dragon, she specifically said next year, which is the current schedule.

  • MarcVader
  • windbourne

    wow.
    Musk has been well known for being wrong on time-lines, but shotwell has NORMALLY been up front about it (and closer to the time).
    For that just coming out of her mouth and if they delay, I think that it will cause more issues with regard to honesty, then anything else.

  • windbourne

    nasa has done ‘planned holds’? IOW, they have told them to stop working because they had nothing to pay them with?
    If that is true, then something is REALLY wrong, since NASA is supposed to SUPPLEMENT, not control all this.
    Do you have any links to this?

  • windbourne

    i saw that as well, but I was under impression that the current schedule was the result of that.

  • windbourne

    russia has already said nothing more after the current set.
    In addition, being boeing nor spacex should have issues with meeting the schedules. hell, they are both getting plenty of money.

  • windbourne

    russia has already said no more flights after the scheduled ones.
    Boeing has been more than 100% funded on this (they are STILL getting massive profits just off development on this), and SpaceX is not getting chump change for it.
    it is time for them to get this ready.

  • P.K. Sink

    I remember the Russians making that threat about the same time as they were threatening to withhold engines. I’m guessing that they might cough up a couple of rides for some really BIG BUCKS.

  • Douglas Messier

    It should happen next year. Doesn’t mean it will.

    Actually, August is the current schedule. We’ll see if it holds. SpaceX’s schedules never do.

  • Douglas Messier

    There’s concern about how much insight NASA has into these new vehicles. Particularly with the early rounds being done under Space Act Agreements. It’s an important feature of safety that few people understand. NASA is placing a lot of trust in the companies ultimately. From the Q&A published this week:

    How much faith do you put in engineers or do you go through all the engineering yourself? How much do you trust companies?

    Williams: There is just too much information to go through every single part of a spacecraft or an aircraft for that matter. We got to be involved almost a year ago so we were able to provide a perspective of what was being designed for. We have to trust them. The safety stuff is going to happen, everyone knows that and everyone works toward that. It’s our obligation to make the spacecraft as good as it can be for the future crews as well.

    Boe: Spaceflight is about people. When you fly airplanes you have to count on those people. The hardware is cool, but it’s really the people that make everything work.

  • Doug,
    Is it starting to feel like Deja-Virgin-Galactic all over again?

  • Douglas Messier

    No. Not anywhere near that degree. There are certification requirements for the crew vehicles. There wasn’t anything like that with SpaceShipTwo, and they were trying to rush through the flight test program at the time of the crash.

    I talked to someone familiar with safety concerns relating to commercial crew, and this source mentioned the issue of insight. NASA didn’t have the insight it normally would have had on commercial cargo, which was probably OK since it was cargo. NASA was fully expecting to lose some cargo ships, and they did.

    The source was worried that NASA could repeat that process here, not having provided enough oversight and gotten as much insight into the processes as they really need to.

    Any significant additional delays would cause serious political issues with Congress. On the other hand, this is human spaceflight and as you say, the consequences of pushing the schedule too fast can be fatal.

    Long answer to a simple question.

  • OZone

    Read the article – One has to question why the requirements for Commercial Crew would be behind a Password Protected site. Why aren’t the requirements a public document – I am presuming there are some security requirements listed? At least I hope.

    They really should add those as a reference and locate them in secure areas but in general the specification for human rated space flight should be publicly available… We are paying for it after all.

  • duheagle

    Even being generous and allocating all six months between the CRS-7 failure and the Orbcomm return-to-flight as development delay time for Dragon 2, your own figures still show there are 8 months of additional delay that have occurred to the current test flight without crew mission schedule anent the original schedule. That’s well over half the total delay.

    CRS-7 was a pretty big deal. And I don’t think it’s credible at all that SpaceX has run into enough lesser roadblocks in Dragon 2 development to, in aggregate, exceed the delay due to CRS-7.

    Bottom line? NASA has been deliberately pulling on SpaceX’s Dragon 2 reins over the last two or three years in order to maintain their credibility when whinging before Congress about underfunding the CC program. The actual percentage of the total program delay due to such NASA gamesmanship will always be arguable, but that some fairly substantial fraction of it is due to this cause is, in my view, dead solid certain.

  • duheagle

    Of course not. Government chicanery and gamesmanship is, pretty much by definition, going to be hidden. Perhaps some insider – more likely a SpaceX-er than an old NASA hand – will reveal all in a memoir published two or three decades hence. But, unless Wikileaks or Anonymous can be persuaded away from rifling Hillary’s and the DNC’s e-mails for at least a short time to turn their attention to NASA, I doubt anything substantive is likely to come to light very soon.

  • duheagle

    There is no safety issue here. SpaceX development efforts have, historically, run at 2.5 to 5 times the speed of broadly comparable NASA efforts. This isn’t a matter of schedule slippage due to insufficient time to do the work or to do it right. It’s a matter of a government agency needing not to appear to be crying “Wolf!” when doing its Oliver Twist impression before Congress.

    Boeing, being legacy aerospace, may well be having schedule slippages due to real development problems and the usual comparatively lethargic pace with which OldSpace does pretty much anything. But SpaceX is a different story. I think NASA has been deliberately holding SpaceX back at various points in order to support its Congressional testimony about budgets vs. schedules.

    The fill levels of a lot of iron rice bowls are at stake here, both in the short term and for the foreseeable future. There is nothing a federal agency takes more seriously than its own budget. Nothing.

  • duheagle

    I understand that you have concerns. You have repeatedly demonstrated that you believe private sector space firms to be dangerous mavericks unless firmly handled by the all-wise folks at NASA. I think the opposite is much closer to being the truth.

    NASA, presumably, has even more “insight” into the Orion program than it does the Dragon 2 program because the former is being developed in the orthodox, NASA-OldSpace way with all the interminable meetings and design reviews and pallet-loads of paperwork.

    But, despite all the institutionalized kibitzing, second-guessing and ass-covering built into the Orion development process, the first pressure vessel constructed cracked during pressure tests and had to be patched. The subsequent test article had to have its design modified. Then there’s that whole heat shield clusterf**k that is still going on. And don’t get me started on Orion’s longstanding and still problematical “reducing diet” to shed its considerable over-budget mass.

    Given that NASA, as an institution, hasn’t designed a successful manned spacecraft since Jimmy Carter was still in office, and none of the engineers on NASA’s current payroll have ever done so at all, I don’t really understand your blithe confidence in NASA’s allegedly canonical ability to offer useful “oversight” and “guidance” to private firms designing manned spacecraft. It’s like you’re some kind of weird space-Muslim, down on your prayer rug with arms foremost and your butt in the air facing NASA HQ in DC.

    NASA hu akbar.

    That is not to say that NASA is utterly bereft of people who actually know what they’re doing. But those people have track records. Dr. Dan Rasky, who developed PICA for NASA and whose work has been proven in space, effectively went on the SpaceX payroll for a couple years to provide crucial help in developing PICA into three subsequent generations of PICA-X. SpaceX was happy to have Dr. Dan around because, as the saying goes, he actually “knew s**t.” The same has been true of other old NASA hands SpaceX has gleefully taken aboard.

    But the NASA-LockMart Orion effort seems almost a parody of engineering via consultation of “sacred texts.” Way too much of Orion seems to have resulted from someone finding old Apollo Command Module drawings and applying a suitable scale-up factor. As with the persistent over-porkiness problem, the pressure vessel cracks and the low comedy of the heat shield fiasco, engineering via archival spelunking has decided limits.

    I remain unconvinced that the normative NASA staffer has anything of consequence to actually teach SpaceX – or LockMart or Boeing for that matter – about spacecraft engineering. SpaceX eagerly snaps up or sits at the feet of NASA’s few genuine superstar scientist-engineers. But I think I can be pardoned for questioning whether career desk jockeys and paper-pushers have any useful insights or guidance to offer an engineering cadre that has done so much, so well, and so quickly as that of SpaceX.

  • duheagle

    Is your source a NASA insider? Certainly sounds like it. What else would you expect a government apparatchik to say? “Oh yeah, they’re doing fine. I spend all day playing ‘Angry Birds’ and taking long lunches, basically.” Sure. The more useless the government is, the more its staffers tend to puff themselves up and pretend to be indispensable.

    I suppose it would be too much to ask your “source” for some details about exactly what sort of “insight” is allegedly lacking or what sort of additional “oversight” would, in his view, be desirable?

  • duheagle

    I think what Russia actually said was something more like, “No one has talked to us about 2019 yet.” Given that Russia recently announced it is thinking of cutting its ISS crew complement from 3 to 2 – the seats thereby freed up would presumably be peddled for top dollar to space tourists – Roscosmos doesn’t seem to be exactly swimming in excess cash these days. I think that even if NASA showed up at midnight on Dec. 31, 2018 looking for more Soyuz rides, some kind of deal could be quickly struck. But I don’t think that’s very likely to be necessary.

  • duheagle

    It’s also not something to be gratuitously screwed around with by a lot of government schleppers with no relevant track records of actual accomplishment.

  • duheagle

    Of course they would. See my earlier comment on this matter above.

  • Vladislaw

    So you believe space transportation, will be the only human derived mechanical transportation to be entirely accident free?

    Have not accidents, in themselves, been the catalyst for almost every innovation relating to safety in all forms of mechanical transportation?

    We will never get anywhere if fear of an accident is going to stop progress. If space transportation is important then accidents should be an acceptable risk. If space transportation is not important enough that accidental deaths are acceptable lets stop kidding our selves and just stay on the ground.

  • duheagle

    While NASA, which purports to offer SpaceX “oversight” and “guidance” has, of course, such a sterling record of making its dates.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t discuss sources.

    He was referring to more insight during all phases of development. The Space Act Agreements made that more difficult. These are vehicles that will kill their occupants if they don’t work as planned.

    Insight, oversight, reliability and the probabilities of accidents are a set of very complex issues. It’s difficult to get across how complex they are. And many of the people who understand these things aren’t allowed to speak publicly.

    Part of the problem with having this discussion is the automatic assumption you’ve made here. That any concerns raised are coming from lazy government employees who don’t know what they’re talking about and have nothing better to do with their time. That NASA’s expertise and experience can be easily discounted. That private companies can do things safer by definition.

    The attitude is quite ingrained out here in Mojave. It contributed to some real tragedies.

  • Douglas Messier

    Don’t missstate my views here. You’ve turned this into a diatribe against Orion. That’s not what the post is all about.

  • Douglas Messier

    NASA has delays? I did not know that. I’m glad you’re here to tell us these things.

    Why does any factual observation about SpaceX immediately require criticism of NASA or Boeing or ULA?

  • But thorough!

    While I’m not “worried” about the safety of either vehicle, I’m still “concerned”. The pattern for loss of life in spaceflight is pretty repeatable and the causes are predictable.

    Hard deadlines + insufficient schedule margin = increased risk of accidents.

  • redneck

    Duheagle,
    I think it is more a case that Doug has been burned multiple times and has backed off to the position that the only ones that can be relied on to do it right and on time are the ones with that track record. That’s a null set at the moment.

  • JamesG

    That is how the government rolls…

  • JamesG

    The customer is always right.

  • P.K. Sink

    Yup. Good comment. It’s kinda weird how the Russians are quoted on saying all kinds of crazy stuff, and the Chinese are very closed mouthed about what they’re planning. Very different cultures…but they seem to be teaming up as an alternative to the western space access agenda. Interesting times.

  • JamesG

    ITAR probably.

  • Douglas Messier

    No. It’s just that safety is a lot more complex than the discussions of it in public.

  • Douglas Messier

    Exactly right.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    So, you have no proof.

  • The things that killed people in past accidnets were generally well known items, not just an amorphous fear. The innovation that has saved many lives in spaceflight has been a willingness to postpone flights. I realize that doesn’t involve technology, but rushing kills.

    Learning from your mistakes is progress, knowingly repeating the mistakes of others is reckless.

  • For those wanting to reply, this was a rhetorical question..

  • redneck

    My meaning was more along the lines of nobody has a track record of producing safe vehicles on time, and you don’t automatically assume they do with your experience level. That applies equally to Newspace, Oldspace, and Commentspace.

  • Douglas Messier

    Ah OK. Fair enough.

  • Douglas Messier

    Lueder’s comment is not one of someone who has real confidence in the latest schedule. If she did, she might have said, ‘by this time next year (August) we expect SpaceX to be returning human launch capability to the United States with a test flight. Before that, they’ll do a flight without a crew and an in-flight abort. We’re really looking forward to an exciting year coming up.’

    McAlister did say the schedules were optimistic but achievable, so they all seem to be hedging their bets. That’s a good thing because it’s much worse when you over promise and then can’t deliver on things.

  • JamesG

    A plan is just a plan. They are still well ahead of Boeing.

  • Jim R

    The innovation that can save lives is to design the accident out of your vehicle, don’t repeat the mistake others made in terms of poor design choices. For starters: Don’t use pure oxygen atmosphere inside the spacecraft, give astronauts backup air supply during reentry, do not use segmented solids in manned vehicle, do not expose your heatshield to debris strike. Of course a redundant landing system would also be a big plus. All these are more or less covered by CC vehicle design.

  • Yes… VERY yes.

    As my satellite design professor always said, “you won’t discover any new failures during your career, you’ll only rediscover old ones.”

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Someone needs to slap Kathy Lueders. Just because this phase of the Commercial Crew contracts started in September 2014, doesn’t mean the vendors started from scratch then. Both SpaceX and Boeing completed their CDR in the previous phase, didn’t they ? Doesn’t CDR completion mean you are ready for serial production ? When was the first set of CCDev contracts put out 2011, or earlier ? Didn’t Elon Musk promise all of America that he would be ready 3 years after receiving funding from NASA ?

  • JimMcDade

    The commercial crew companies are in a race with time more so than a race with each other. Every day we are one day closer to the inevitable ditching of the ISS. I hope that ISS will eventually be replaced with a big wheel in the sky type of station, but it is going to be terrible if we lose the ISS before these commercial concepts turn into practical space transpoftation.