First Commercial Flights to ISS Slide Toward 2020

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Early in the classic police comedy, The Naked Gun, Lt. Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) is at the hospital with partner Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) visiting the critically wounded Officer Nordberg (O.J. Simpson), who had been shot and left for dead by a group of heroin smuggling thugs.

“Doctors say that Nordberg has a 50/50 chance of living, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that,” Ed tells Frank.

A similar scene played out Wednesday morning during the House Space Subcommittee’s hearing on the progress of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Only it wasn’t nearly as funny.

Boeing’s John Mulholland and SpaceX’s Hans Koenigsmann sat side by side at the witness table saying that their companies were on track to conduct flight tests of their Starliner and Dragon 2 vehicles to the International Space Station (ISS), become certified by NASA, and begin flying astronauts on a commercial basis (PCM-1) on the current official schedule below.

Credit: NASA ASAP & Parabolic Arc

At the same table, the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) Cristina Chaplain testified that there was little chance of any of this happening on that timetable.

“The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and, based on our ongoing work, we found that the program’s own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing,” Chaplain said in her written testimony.

So, why is there a major discrepancy between the official schedule NASA updates every quarter and the space agency’s much less optimistic internal one? Chaplain’s testimony recounts the explanation given by NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders.

The Commercial Crew Program manager stated that differences between the contractors’ proposed schedules and the program’s schedule risk analysis include the following:

  • The contractors are aggressive and use their schedule dates to motivate their teams, while NASA adds additional schedule margin for testing.
  • Both contractors assume an efficiency factor in getting to the crewed flight test that NASA does not factor into its analysis.

The program manager explained further that the program meets with each contractor monthly to discuss schedules and everyone agrees to the relationships between events in the schedule even if they disagree on the length of time required to complete events. The program manager added, however, that she relies on her prior experience for a better sense of schedule timeframes as opposed to relying on the contractors’ schedules.

If NASA’s internal schedule assessment is correct, the space agency has a serious problem on its hands. It has only booked seats for its astronauts on Russian spacecraft through Soyuz 59, which is currently scheduled to take off in May 2019 and land six months later. It takes Russia about three years to build a new Soyuz.

NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier said the space agency is working on options to maintain a continuous U.S. presence on the space station if the providers’ schedules continue to slip. He did not provide any details.

So, what are causing the delays? Boeing and SpaceX have a lot of work to do, and they don’t have much time to do it in if they want to fly their vehicles this year.

For example, Boeing is dealing with issues relating to its abort system, heat shield and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V booster, according to Chaplain’s testimony. SpaceX is dealing with a redesign of its helium tanks — which caused an explosion of a Falcon 9 on the launch pad in September 2016 — as well as addressing whether to load the crew aboard before or after the booster is fueled.

NASA is also going to be very busy overseeing the Commercial Crew Program as it nears completion, as the GAO found when it reviewed the program in February 2017.

“At that time, program officials told us that one of their greatest upcoming challenges will be to keep pace with the contractors’ schedules so that the program does not delay certification,” according to Chaplain’s written testimony. “Specifically, they told us they are concerned about an upcoming ‘bow wave’ of work because the program must complete two oversight activities—phased safety reviews and verification closure notices—concurrently in order to support the contractors’ design certification reviews, uncrewed and crewed flight test missions, and final certification.”

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Hey Doug why were you going on about ECLSS delays and problems for Dragon2 just a few months ago when it is clear from this morning’s testimony all ECLSS and suit objectives have been met?

  • duheagle


    1. We’re just really, really worried about a helium tank and propellant loading problem that SpaceX solved over a year ago.

    2. We’re just really,really worried about putting the crew on an empty rocket and then filling it up instead of filling it up first and then putting the crew in ’cause, like, that’s not how we used to do it.

    3. SpaceX is working around the clock to make their deadlines but, like, we can only work 40 hours a week looking over their shoulders.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know. I shall check.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Likely huge delay between all hardware objective complete and “certification” which is code for we really just want to run the clock because no one wants to take responsibility for dangerous stuff.

    Here is an example: Gerst walks into a committee meeting and says, “We are going to take a detailed look at propellant loading visa-vi risk for the specific vehicle”.

    Gerst has been saying that for a long long time. Why on God’s green Earth have they not started that already? Block 4 is 95% of the way to block 5 human rating. Look at it already and come to conclusion pending the qual testing of the new COPVs. WTF are you waiting for?

  • therealdmt

    So it sounds like the contractors are going to be finishing up a ton of work this year (hopefully), and then NASA will have about of year of paperwork to go through before they’ll officially sign off on it.

    That’s not necessarily the end of the world. Once the demo flights are safely completed, a demonstrated capability is there. A crew rotation could then be handled under some type of a temporary waiver mechanism if necessary

  • SamuelRoman13

    I don’t think slips are a problem. How much margin do they have? Fall ’19. They can do more test flights. They need a test flight were they deliver 4 regular crew and they stay for 6 months. A regular rotation. The test with 2 crew and quick turnaround, since there is no place to stay, is not much of a test. I don’t think the danger in these capsules is much worse than flying a jet with an ejector seat. Less, pilots get hurt using ejector seats. Very good hearing and everything sounds good.

  • Jeff2Space

    No kidding. Just how long does it take to do qualification testing of the new COPVs? I wonder how fast qualification testing took for the helium tanks for the S-IVB upper stage. Even though this stage was first flown on the Saturn IB. many changes to the helium pressurization system were made to the version used on Saturn V. I’m just not sure if there were any changes to the actual helium tank design.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    1. That COPV tank issue isn’t fixed until Block 5.

    2. SpaceX proved they know how to make their rockets go boom during the fueling process.

    3. SpaceX may be working around the clock, but the schedule is still shifting to the right. Don’t blame NASA oversight on their inability to make a schedule.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    S-IVB-503 was a titanium PV not COPV and not submerged. SpaceX currently uses Aluminum with CF overwrap.

    Both SpaceX and NASA have dedicated COPV test stands that are able to both do qualification and acceptance testing. SpaceX has built a dedicated new stand post AMOS at McGregor. These test stands can be used to sweep through the loading conditions.

  • Jeff2Space

    I know about the differences. Just pointing out that liquid helium is extremely cold. That’s part of the problem with “submerged” tanks. The liquid helium temperature is way lower than LOX, which causes it to freeze.

    The handling changes are likely enough to keep things “safe”. But it would be far better if the redesigned tanks don’t let LOX seep into the composite where it could freeze if there is a problem with filling the helium and LOX tanks. Otherwise, your handling procedures become a single point of failure, which is a “bad thing”.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    SX just launched the F9 19 times is 13 months. l am sure that they have a handle on the COPV tank issue. I sense that the powers in control of the purse strings wants a 99% safe vehicle on the first flight.