GAO: Boeing & SpaceX Face Potential Further Delays in Commercial Crew Certification

Astronaut Eric Boe evaluates Boeing Starliner spacesuit in mockup of spacecraft cockpit. (Credit: Boeing)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says NASA’s commercial crew contractors face potential further delays into 2019 for certifying their vehicles to carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) on a commercial basis.

“Boeing has proposed moving its certification review out to the fourth quarter of 2018—at least 14 months later than initially planned,” the report states. “SpaceX has moved its certification review to the third quarter of 2018—at least 15 months later than initially planned.

“The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and its own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019,” the report adds.

Certification of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be performed only after each vehicle makes two successful flight tests — one with a crew, the other without one — to the space station. After the vehicles are certified, the companies can begin flying astronauts to the ISS on a commercial basis.

The assessment says that a lack of sufficient information about certain Boeing systems could delay Starliner certification. One of those systems is the Russian-supplied RD-180 engine used in the first stage of Starliner’s Atlas V booster.

“The Commercial Crew Program’s top programmatic and safety risks for SpaceX are, in part, related to ongoing launch vehicle design and development efforts, including changes that could result from a September 2016 pre-launch mishap,” the report added.

SpaceX Crew Dragon Weldment Structure (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has disputed estimates that Dragon will fall further behind. The company has scheduled the first flight test of an automated Crew Dragon for late this year.

One of NASA’s top concerns for both companies is whether their vehicles can meet the required 1-in-270 probability of suffering a catastrophic loss of crew.

“For example, the program has identified the spacecrafts’ ability to tolerate the micrometeoroid and orbital debris environment as the most significant driver of the loss of crew metric,” the assessment states.

“Both contractors have lowered this risk through testing, which provides insight into how well their systems perform in these environments, and by making design changes,” the report added. “If the contractors have to make future design changes to improve their spacecraft’s performance in this environment, certification could be further delayed.”

NASA has purchased seats for its astronauts on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft through 2018. However, it has options to purchase three additional seats from Boeing to cover 2019 if the commercial crew vehicles suffer further delays. Boeing obtained rights to the seats from RSC Energia, which builds the Soyuz, as part of the settlement of a lawsuit over the Sea Launch joint venture.

In 2014, Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts worth $4.2 billion and $.26 billion, respectively, for the final development phase of the Commercial Crew Program. The contracts also contained a guaranteed number of commercial flight contracts for both companies.

NASA has increased the value of each contract since it was signed.

While the contracts are firm-fixed price, their values can increase if NASA adds to the scope of the work or otherwise changes requirements,” the assessment states. “As of January 2017, the value of the design, development, and test portion of the contracts had increased by $47 million and $91 million, respectively for Boeing and SpaceX. According to a program official, these contract increases were covered by program cost reserves”.

An excerpt from the report concerning the Commercial Crew program follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees
Government Accountability Office
May 2017

[Full Report]

Commercial Crew

Credit: GAO

Cost and Schedule Status

Both of the Commercial Crew Program’s contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but have aggressive development schedules that are increasingly under pressure. The contractors were originally required to provide NASA all the evidence it needed to certify that their systems met its requirements by 2017. In February 2017, we reported neither Boeing nor SpaceX can meet their original certification dates and both now expect certification to be delayed until 2018.

Boeing has proposed moving its certification review out to the fourth quarter of 2018—at least 14 months later than initially planned. SpaceX has moved its certification review to the third quarter of 2018—at least 15 months later than initially planned.

The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and its own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019. NASA currently relies on the Russian space agency to transport astronauts to the ISS. In February 2017, NASA reached an agreement with Boeing giving NASA the option of acquiring crew transportation from Boeing on Russian Soyuz flights in 2019, to protect against Commercial Crew program delays or problems in certification.

NASA has also made changes to the contracts that have increased their value. While the contracts are firm-fixed price, their values can increase if NASA adds to the scope of the work or otherwise changes requirements. As of January 2017, the value of the design, development, and test portion of the contracts had increased by $47 million and $91 million, respectively for Boeing and SpaceX.
According to a program official, these contract increases were covered by program cost reserves.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

In addition to Boeing and SpaceX’s schedule challenges, both contractors face other risks that will need to be addressed to support their certification. The Commercial Crew Program’s top programmatic and safety risks for Boeing are, in part, related to having adequate information on certain systems, including its launch vehicle’s main engine, to support certification. The Commercial Crew Program’s top programmatic and safety risks for SpaceX are, in part, related to ongoing launch vehicle design and development efforts, including changes that could result from a September 2016 pre-launch mishap.

The Commercial Crew Program has identified the ability of it and its contractors to meet crew safety requirements as one of its top risks. NASA established the “loss of crew” metric as a way to measure the safety of a crew transportation system. The metric captures the probability of death or permanent disability to one or more crew members. Under the current contracts, the loss of crew requirement is 1 in 270, meaning that the contractors’ systems must carry no more than a 1 in 270 probability of incurring loss of crew.

Program officials told us their main focus is to work with the contractors to ensure that the spacecraft designs are robust from a safety perspective. For example, the program has identified the spacecrafts’ ability to tolerate the micrometeoroid and orbital debris environment as the most significant driver of the loss of crew metric.

Both contractors have lowered this risk through testing, which provides insight into how well their systems perform in these environments, and by making design changes. If the contractors have to make future design changes to improve their spacecraft’s performance in this environment, certification could be further delayed.

Save

  • windbourne

    hmm.
    SOOOO not good.
    Musk said that it would take very little time once they got funding. They had funding this year.
    Where is the real issue?

  • JamesG

    Rocket surgery an’t eazy.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Two mishaps in two years after receiving the award, and resulting design adjustments, as alluded to in the report. That, applied to an already super aggressive upgrade regime, also alluded to in the report. But things are going well so far this year (fingers crossed) so I will not be surprised if they pull some of that slippage back. Boeing’s problems are another matter.

    Of course, this could all have been moved to the left if the funding had been level from the start. Water under the bridge, eh.

  • duheagle

    The GAO are sort of paid to be party poopers. Given that most of what they look into at NASA turns out to be horror shows, one can understand their general tendency toward Gloomy Gus-ness anent anything related to space. Personally, I think SpaceX will meet or exceed its current schedule, but it’s hardly unreasonable for a government-centric watchdog agency to think otherwise. They have long experience with the legacy NASA contractors, for example. That isn’t an experience base that inclines one toward sunny optimism about private-sector performance.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Both Boeing and SpaceX had access to funding – if they were willing to borrow it on the private market. Apparently they weren’t that hot to get flying.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Right from the start it was clear that Boeing was not going to do this without government funding. They practically said so. SpaceX meanwhile was always going to because they have this overarching Mars agenda which behooves them to get wet on human space transport. With no NASA contract in the offing, they might have tapped their private sources for that; it’s difficult to say from this standpoint how it would have played out. But there was a NASA contract, they chose to go for it and save the other sources for the several other irons they have in the fire, and this is where we are.

  • JamesG

    They are only in as much hurry as the customer (NASA) is. What they aren’t that hot for is to have an accident or casualty that makes them look bad and costs money.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I agree with you on this point. You are dead on regarding both companies. That said, their combined failure to fly their vehicles on time does not rest with Congress or NASA. Milestone payments are still available for both companies under existing contracts that neither company has yet earned and no one has yet complained of slow payments from NASA. SpaceX seems to have too many irons in the fire to the detriment of everything they plan to do and Boeing seems to have lost the accumulated knowledge that they acquired from merging with other aerospace companies.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I’m sure that NASA isn’t particularly thrilled about having to buy seats from the Russians (or Boeing) for rides to space that both Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to be providing by now. That said, I too would rather have a safe, tested vehicle that takes longer than an unsafe one that comes in on time. My point was that if funding was the actual problem, money was available and the winner of the private space race would have made multi-millions picking up flights that the other guy wasn’t yet able to provide.

  • JamesG

    Yup. Money isn’t really the problem. The problem is the “NASA-way” of doing things.

    Just compare how fast and the way SpaceX does stuff when not shackled to a NASA contract.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Its who they are. Boeing is not from that school where you hurry a government contract. The experience is, give the government enough time and they think of things to add, which increases price, which is what Boeing is here for as opposed to some grandiose accomplishment in space. And Musk starts a new company every time he gets an idea. The good thing is that he still manages to deliver on most, eventually. If I had to choose between the HSF programs of America, Russia and China, I’d say we’re still looking at an embarrassment of riches over here, even though those guys have been flying.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Government funding (with its associated bureaucracy) does slow things down but that is something everybody knew going in. Still, engineering problems do yield to influxes of cash and it was available. My only point in all of this is that it is disingenuous to blame the government for the failure of private industry to solve engineering issues.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Agree. I certainly hope NASA is inserting liquidated damages clauses into their contracts now. The acquisition process for this particular project was unique – especially for Boeing. Next time NASA should just put out a request for bids and demand a fly-off of nearly-finished products. This is how they do it with aircraft and (hopefully) spacecraft will be no different. The fact that you won’t produce enough spacecraft points to the real main issue for private space – creating a need. Right now Bigelow is making a space habitat that nobody needs currently and SpaceX and Boeing are making a few space taxis. Until somebody comes up with a way(s) to populate space with workers and industry to enhance life on Earth, spacecraft production will remain a niche industry.

  • JamesG

    Who is managing the program and the contracts? The government. Or rather agents of the government. Agents who have only abstracted incentive to seek maximum value for the money spent since… its not like its their money. The classic “agency problem”. Its why communism does not work once you get beyond the basic family unit and why American creeping socialism is failing.

    Contractors are like employees everywhere, they only work as hard as the boss man makes them. What we have here is a failure of leadership and management, not engineering.

  • JamesG

    That is what is driving SX’s reuseablity, finding ways to increase production and flight (by flirting with debris crisis) to reduce per unit costs, and ultimately the BFR to gain economies of scale comparable to surface shipping.

    I doubt NASA will start doing clawbacks, unless Trump’s people get in the loop on the MIC way of doing things. The whole procurement system has been so deprived of adult supervision for so long that is probably irreversible. It’s going to take dollars to become scarce instead of plentiful for one thing.

  • JamesG

    The problem is lack of real competition. “We” let the defense/aerospace industry consolidate into just a handful of big players with powerful lobby that has as much control over program funding and schedule as the government customer does.

    Even the entry of SpaceX doesn’t really change that dynamic radically. All they have to do is be just a little bit better and they can get their own helping of the fiscal pie.

  • Carlton Stephenson

    IIRC the consolidation was to lower price. That was the stated purpose of Boeing +LockMart=ULA, right? What it continues to ignore is the collusion between said competitors. Organic costs and schedule slippage continue to be the norm because each of them has proven they can get away with it. Hell, its economics 101 when dealing with the government. 1: Make the project jobsy so it appeals to congressional pursers. 2. Stretch it out as much as you can and keep pointing at the jobs.

    SpaceX doesn’t change things much because they are alone in particularly wanting to go somewhere. It benefits them to speed up delivery and lower costs, but no one else. They are the aberration in this game.

  • JamesG

    Actually right now SX is benefiting from the bloated pricing and sluggish pace. It lets them experiment and develop both the Falcon/Dragon and the ITS. Sucks for the taxpayers, great for Elon and Co.