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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  • therealdmt

    Only 2 years away!

    Funny though, I seem to vaguely remember that it was only two years away before. Hmmm

  • Hug Doug

    Funny what happens when they only get half the budget they asked for. Hmmm

  • Douglas Messier

    Current delays (over past 2 1/4 years) are being caused by companies running into technical issues and bureaucratic issues at NASA. That’s according to a NASA IG report.

  • Hug Doug

    Too bad they weren’t fully funded prior to that, perhaps the design work could have been expedited and technical issues could have been found sooner.

  • windbourne

    That is today. The prior issue was CONgress, specifically the Reps, was severely gutting funding.
    Had they funded this properly starting 6 or more years ago, we would already be on the ISS, and would not be paying Putin so much money.

  • Vladislaw

    President Obama proposed 6 billion in new funding over 5 years. in 2010. The house responded with 270 million for 1 year.

  • Vladislaw

    Before the first time congress low balled the white house’s funding proposal? Or do you mean after the second time the congress low balled the white house’s funding proposal? Or quite possibly you may mean the THIRD time congress low balled the white house’s funding proposal? I mean they undercut so many requests. It was rather funny.. every time they low balled the funding request, the dates got pushed back..

    gosh .. if only someone could have predicted THAT would happen if congress kept cutting the requests.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Or they could have down-selected earlier, like Congress told them so that the available funds weren’t spread across so many companies. And I would really like to know how much faster development could take with more funding up front. Most of the early work was just design and paper pushing. There were no test flights to pay for. Wasn’t enough funding provided to perform the Helicopter drop tests, or to a ETA or two ?

  • Hug Doug

    No, the funding was nowhere near enough for that. The initial design and review work is time-consuming and engineering-labor intensive, which is why it’s costly. They knew that allocating only half the funding requested for the first years of the Commercial Crew program would bump the completion date out by two years at the time.

    From 2011, regarding FY 2012 funding: “A reduction in funding from the president’s request could significantly impact the program’s schedule, risk posture, and acquisition strategy,” Bolden’s testimony said, adding that a budget of $500 million would delay commercial crew service to the space station until 2017.”

    “I would say that with only [about] $400 million, it does put at serious risk our ability to fly by the middle of the decade and not rely on the Russians for another year or more,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s manager of the commercial crew program.”

    http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1111/23commercialcrew/

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/48/CCP_Budget_requests.png/800px-CCP_Budget_requests.png

  • Vladislaw

    Down selecting to a single provider was EXACTLY the opposite of what NASA wanted to achieve. Getting rid of a single fault string for access to LEO.

    We need multiple domestic transportation service providers. If a company has a bad hair day the Nation’s ENTIRE ability to get to LEO does not grind to a halt.. like with the space shuttle.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    And how did it help to assist Excalibur Almaz in any way. They weren’t even based in the US. I liked Dream Chaser, but it was clear SNC wasn’t committing enough internal funding to make this a reality anytime before 2020. The entire commercial crew program has been run without listening to any feedback from Congress. They sign contracts without determining if Congress will fund that program.

  • Paul451

    I haven’t done it before, but if you simply add up the total requested divided by total appropriated, then multiply by the five years of major funding, it increases by 1.9 years. So just predicting delays on a purely dollar-for-dollar basis, you’d expect a nearly two year delay.

    (And in reality, delays don’t work that neatly, if you back-stack development, you push the major testing to the end, meaning that most of your technical issues tend to come to light late in the program. Which is what we’re seeing.)