NASA Moves to Secure Commercial Crew as Obama Administration Exits

SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)
SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)

NASA had made a couple of major moves relating to human spaceflight this month as the Obama Administration would down toward its exit at noon on Friday.

On Jan. 3, the space agency announced it had awarded four additional flights apiece to Boeing and SpaceX to carry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Each company now has six flights for their Starliner and Crew Dragon vehicles, respectively.

“The additional flights will allow the commercial partners to plan for all aspects of these missions while fulfilling space station transportation needs,” NASA said in a press release.

“Awarding these missions now will provide greater stability for the future space station crew rotation schedule, as well as reduce schedule and financial uncertainty for our providers,” said Phil McAlister, director, NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division. “The ability to turn on missions as needed to meet the needs of the space station program is an important aspect of the Commercial Crew Program.”

Although the awards do not include payments to the two companies at this time, they will likely make it more difficult for the incoming Trump Administration to unwind the deals if it decided to do so.  Hence the reduction in uncertainty for the providers.

There is still a lot of uncertainty over whether Boeing and SpaceX will be able to begin carrying astronauts to the station on a commercial basis in 2019.

Atlas V CST-100 Starliner at Launch Complex 41. (Credit: ULA/Boeing)
Atlas V CST-100 Starliner at Launch Complex 41. (Credit: ULA/Boeing)

The companies’ schedules for completing flight tests of their vehicles and getting them certified by NASA to carry crews are tight. The likelihood of further delays is high given past schedule slips and the number of technical challenges both companies face.

Delays into 2019 would produce a major headache for NASA because the space agency has only booked seats for its astronauts on Russian Soyuz vehicles through 2018. Manufacturer RSC Energia usually requires three years of leadtime to produce new Soyuz ferry ships.

Even as commercial crew schedules continued to slip and margins grew slimmer over the past few months, NASA officials denied they had any plans to purchase any additional seats from the Russians.

On Tuesday, we found out why. A pre-solicitation notice on the U.S. government procurement site said that NASA is considering purchasing additional seats for 2019. But, not from the Russians, but from Boeing.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

Boeing received five Soyuz seats as compensation in-kind from RSC Energia as part of the settlement of a lawsuit involving a company called Sea Launch. Boeing has expressed a willingness to sell the seats to NASA for an undisclosed price.

NASA is considering purchasing three seats available in 2019 as a backup in case there are further delays in the commercial crew program. If the crew vehicles are ready in time, NASA could still use the seats to send up additional astronauts to make greater use of the facility.

Boeing also has Soyuz spaces available in Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. NASA is considering purchasing the seats to place an extra American astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory during these periods.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

The pre-solicitation notice does not commit NASA to purchases the slots. Instead, it provides options to the incoming Trump Administration for dealing with any additional commercial crew delays.

The move also spares the Obama Administration and outgoing NASA Administrator Charles Bolden from the likely wrath of Congress. Publicly announcing the intention three days before Trump’s Inauguration provides no time for contentious hearings on Capitol Hill.

Congress has been lukewarm in its support of commercial crew, and critical of delays in the program. The prospect of spending even more money to buy Soyuz seats — even if its indirectly through Boeing — is probably not going over very well. Legislators are probably not very happy to hear this as the Obama Administration heads out the door.

In NASA’s defense, Bolden can argue that they agency told the incoming Trump Administration about the potential problem and left behind a viable — if probably expensive — solution that will guard against further delays and enhance U.S. use of the station in 2019 if the commercial crew vehicles come in on time.

In recent months, NASA and the companies also updated the official commercial crew schedule, which included schedule delays for both Boeing and SpaceX. Independent reports from the NASA Inspector General and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) have found that further delays are possible for both programs.

Despite the last-minute public notice about additional Soyuz seat purchases, the new administration is coming in with a pretty clear picture of where the commercial crew effort stands and its options for dealing with problems that may crop up over the next two years.

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