GAO Commercial Crew Assessment: More Delays Likely

Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew vehicles certified to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station might not be available until the end of next year, according to a new audit from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and its schedule risk analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip until late 2019 for SpaceX and early 2020 for Boeing,” the report states.

The current schedule, which was last revised in January, has Boeing and SpaceX making automated and crewed flight tests to the International Space Station by the end of this year. Boeing’s Starliner would be be certified in January 2019, with SpaceX’s Dragon 2 the following month.

However, the schedule has been slipping about a quarter every quarter. The GAO reports cites a number of concerns that could result in delays in the flights and certification.

Boeing is dealing with issues with how its Starliner spacecraft will perform during aborts and reentry.

“In some abort scenarios, Boeing has found that the spacecraft may tumble, which could pose a threat to the crew’s safety,” the report stated. “To validate the effectiveness of its abort system, Boeing has conducted extensive wind tunnel testing and plans to complete a pad abort test in April 2018.” (The abort test has slipped to June.)

There are also concerns that the forward heat shield, which protects the parachutes during reentry, could reconnect with the spacecraft after it is jettisoned and damage the parachutes.

Boeing conducted the first in a series of reliability tests of its CST-100 Starliner flight drogue and main parachute system Feb. 22, 2018, over Yuma, Arizona. (Credit: NASA)

“If the program determines this risk is unacceptable, Boeing would need to redesign the parachute system, which the program estimates could result in at least a 6-month delay,” according to the assessment.

For SpaceX, the issues include the redesign of the composite overwrap pressure vessel in the Falcon 9 second stage, which caused an on-pad explosion that destroyed a booster and communications satellite in September 2016.

There are additional issues with the Falcon 9, whose Block 5 variant is set to launch for the first time next week.

Dragon 2 docks with the International Space Station.

“SpaceX officials told us that the Block 5 design also includes design changes to address cracks in the turbine of its engine identified during development testing. NASA program officials told us that they had informed SpaceX that the cracks were an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight,” the report stated.

One requirement both companies are having trouble meeting is NASA’s 1 in 270 probability of incurring a loss of crew.

“The program has reported it is exploring options, such as on-orbit inspections of the spacecraft,” the assessment said. “Additionally, program officials told us that one of their greatest upcoming challenges will be to complete two oversight activities — conducting phased safety reviews and verifying that contractors meet requirements — concurrently.”

The report’s assessment of commercial crew progress is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Commercial Crew Program

The Commercial Crew Program facilitates and oversees the development of safe, reliable, and cost-effective crew transportation systems by commercial companies to carry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The program is a multi-phase effort that started in 2010. During the current phase, the program is working with two contractors—Boeing and SpaceX—that will design, develop, test, and operate the crew transportation systems. Once NASA determines the systems meet its standards for human spaceflight — a process called certification — the companies will fly up to six crewed missions to ISS.

Project Summary

Credit: GAO

Both of the Commercial Crew Program’s contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but continue to have aggressive development schedules. All test flights have slipped to 2018 and the final certification reviews have slipped to early 2019. Both contractors continue to work through design issues for their crew transportation systems.

SpaceX is finalizing the design for its launch vehicle, Falcon 9, which will be needed to support crewed flights. Boeing is analyzing the design of the forward heat shield to determine if its expected performance may damage the spacecraft during reentry.

The Commercial Crew Program is the first NASA program that the agency will evaluate against a loss of crew requirement, a key safety metric. Program officials said that if the contractors cannot meet the loss of crew requirement specified in the contracts, NASA could still certify their systems by employing operational mitigations.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

Both of the Commercial Crew Program’s contractors have made progress developing their crew transportation systems, but delays persist as the contractors have had difficulty executing aggressive schedules. The contractors were originally required to provide NASA all the evidence it needed to certify that their systems met its requirements by 2017.

In January 2018, we found the contractors’ test flights have slipped to 2018 and the final certification reviews have slipped to early 2019. This represents a delay of 17 months for Boeing and 22 months for SpaceX from initial schedules. The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and its schedule risk analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip until late 2019 for SpaceX and early 2020 for Boeing.

Design

SpaceX Falcon 9 & Dragon 2

SpaceX must close several of the program’s top risks related to its upgraded launch vehicle design, the Falcon 9 Block 5, before it can be certified for human spaceflight. This includes SpaceX’s redesign of the composite overwrap pressure vessel. SpaceX officials stated the new design aims to eliminate risks identified in the older design, which was involved in an anomaly that caused a mishap in September 2016.

Separately, SpaceX officials told us that the Block 5 design also includes design changes to address cracks in the turbine of its engine identified during development testing. NASA program officials told us that they had informed SpaceX that the cracks were an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight.

SpaceX officials told us that they have made design changes, captured in this Block 5 upgrade, that did not result in any cracking during initial life testing. However, this risk will not be closed until SpaceX successfully completes qualification testing in accordance with NASA’s standards without any cracks. SpaceX officials stated they expect this testing to be completed in first quarter calendar year 2018.

Boeing Starliner & Atlas V

Boeing is also mitigating several risks in order to certify its system including challenges related to the performance of its abort system and a component of its parachute system.

Boeing is addressing a risk that its abort system may not meet the program’s requirement to have sufficient control of the vehicle through an abort. In some abort scenarios, Boeing has found that the spacecraft may tumble, which could pose a threat to the crew’s safety. To validate the effectiveness of its abort system, Boeing has conducted extensive wind tunnel testing and plans to complete a pad abort test in April 2018.

Boeing is also addressing a risk that during re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere, a portion of the spacecraft’s forward heat shield, which protects the parachutes during re-entry, may reconnect and damage the parachute system.

NASA’s independent analysis indicates that this may occur if both parachutes that pull the forward heat shield away from the spacecraft deploy as expected. Boeing’s analysis indicates the risk exists only if one of two parachutes does not deploy as expected. If the program determines this risk is unacceptable, Boeing would need to redesign the parachute system, which the program estimates could result in at least a 6-month delay.

Other Issues to Be Monitored

The ability to meet one of the crew safety requirements, which stems from agency policy, is one of the program’s top risks. NASA established the “loss of crew” requirement as one way to measure the safety of a crew transportation system, with the intent to minimize 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 that Commercial Crew is the first NASA program that the agency will evaluate against a loss of crew requirement. They said that if the contractors cannot meet the loss of crew requirement, there are several actions the Commercial Crew Program could take to help meet it. Program officials stated, however, these actions may not be enough to completely close the gap.

The program has reported it is exploring options, such as on-orbit inspections of the spacecraft. Additionally, program officials told us that one of their greatest upcoming challenges will be to complete two oversight activities — conducting phased safety reviews and verifying that contractors meet requirements — concurrently.

For example, the program originally planned to complete phase two of the safety review process in early 2016, but as of October 2017, neither contractor had completed this phase—the program had approved 90 percent of Boeing’s phase two reports and 70 percent of SpaceX’s.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, program officials stated that NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and private industry partners, Boeing and SpaceX, continue to develop the systems that will return human spaceflight to the United States. Both commercial partners are undertaking considerable amounts of testing in 2018 to prove space system designs and the ability to meet NASA’s safety and mission requirements for crew flights to the ISS.