NASA Commercial Crew Program:
Plan Needed to Ensure Uninterrupted Access to the International Space Station
Government Acc0untability Office
Why GAO Did This Study
In 2014, NASA awarded two firm-fixed-price contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, worth a combined total of up to $6.8 billion, to develop crew transportation systems and conduct initial missions to the ISS. In February 2017, GAO found that both contractors had made progress, but their schedules were under mounting pressure. The contractors were originally required to provide NASA all the evidence it needed to certify that their systems met its requirements by 2017. A House report accompanying H.R. 5393 included a provision for GAO to review the progress of NASA’s human exploration programs. This report examines the Commercial Crew Program, including (1) the extent to which the contractors have made progress towards certification and (2) how NASA’s certification process addresses safety of the contractors’ crew transportation systems. GAO analyzed contracts, schedules, and other documentation and spoke with officials from NASA, the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, SpaceX, and two of NASA’s independent review bodies that provide oversight.
What GAO Found
Both of the Commercial Crew Program’s contractors, Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), are making progress finalizing designs and building hardware for their crew transportation systems, but both contractors continue to delay their certification milestone (see figure). Certification is the process that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will use to ensure that each contractor’s system meets its requirements for human spaceflight for the Commercial Crew Program.
Further delays are likely as the Commercial Crew Program’s schedule risk analysis shows that the certification milestone is likely to slip. The analysis identifies a range for each contractor, with an earliest and latest possible completion date, as well as an average. The average certification date was
December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX, according to the program’s April 2018 analysis. Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russia to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). Additional delays could result in a gap in U.S. access to the space station as NASA has contracted for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft only through November 2019. NASA is considering potential options, but it does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted U.S. access.
NASA’s certification process addresses the safety of the contractors’ crew transportation systems through several mechanisms, but there are factors that complicate the process. One of these factors is the loss of crew metric that was put in place to capture the probability of death or permanent disability to an astronaut. NASA has not identified a consistent approach for how to assess loss of crew. As a result, officials across NASA have multiple ways of assessing the metric that may yield different results. Consequently, the risk tolerance level that NASA is accepting with loss of crew varies based upon which entity is presenting the results of its assessment. Federal internal controls state that management should define risk tolerances so they are clear and measurable. Without a consistent approach for assessing the metric, the agency as a whole may not clearly capture or document its risk tolerance with respect to loss of crew.
What GAO Recommended
GAO is making five recommendations, including that NASA develop a contingency plan for ensuring a U.S. presence on the ISS and clarify how it will determine its risk tolerance for loss of crew. NASA concurred with three recommendations; partially concurred on the recommendation related to loss of crew; and non-concurred with a recommendation to report its schedule analysis to Congress. GAO believes these recommendations remain valid, as discussed in the report.
Recommendations for Executive Action
We are making the following five recommendations to NASA:
The NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations should direct the Commercial Crew Program to include the results of its schedule risk analysis in its mandatory quarterly reports to Congress. (Recommendation 1)
The NASA Administrator should develop and maintain a contingency plan for ensuring a presence on the ISS until a Commercial Crew Program contractor is certified. (Recommendation 2)
The NASA Administrator should direct the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, the Commercial Crew Program Manager, and the Commercial Crew Program Contracting Officer to collectively determine and document before the agency certification review how the agency will determine its risk tolerance level with respect to loss of crew. (Recommendation 3)
After completing the agency certification review, NASA’s Chief Engineer and Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, with support from the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations and the Commercial Crew Program Manager, should document lessons learned related to loss of crew as a safety threshold for future crewed spaceflight missions, given the complexity of the metric. (Recommendation 4)
The NASA Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance should restructure the technical authority within the Commercial Crew Program to ensure that the technical authority for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance is no longer dual hatted with programmatic and independent technical authority responsibilities. (Recommendation 5)
Agency Comments and Our Evaluation
We provided a draft of this report to NASA for review and comment. NASA provided written comments that are reprinted in appendix II.
In its response, NASA concurred with three of our recommendations, did not concur with one, and partially concurred with another.
- NASA concurred with our recommendation to develop and maintain a contingency plan to ensure a U.S. presence on the ISS and expects to take action to close this recommendation by the end of December 2018.
- NASA concurred with our recommendation to document lessons learned related to the loss of crew requirement and expects to take action to close this recommendation by the end of May 2019.
- NASA concurred with our recommendation to restructure the safety technical authority so that it is no longer dual hatted with programmatic and independent technical authority responsibilities. NASA expects to take action to close this recommendation by the end of August 2018.
NASA did not concur with our recommendation that the Commercial Crew Program should include the results of its schedule risk analysis in its quarterly reports to Congress. NASA stated that it uses the contractors’ schedules as a baseline to provide qualitative statements in the NASA summary that accompanies each contractor’s quarterly reports to Congress. NASA believes that this approach is appropriate and is in accordance with the explanatory statement accompanying the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015. NASA also stated that it will be working to ensure that the contractors’ schedules and the program’s internal assessments sync up as the program gets closer to launch. As a result, NASA explained that there will not be a requirement for a detailed NASA assessment, because the contractors’ schedule will either match NASA’s analysis or NASA will discuss its position as it has done in previous reports to Congress.
We continue to believe the recommendation is valid because the program’s schedule risk analysis would provide Congress with valuable insight into potential delays, which are likely. Both contractors have repeatedly stated that their schedules are aggressive and that the dates are ambitious. As a result, we found that the contractors frequently delay dates for key events. For example, Boeing has delayed its certification milestone by 17 months and SpaceX by 22 months since the original schedules were established. The program’s recent schedule risk analysis indicates that more delays to certification are likely, but that information is not presented to Congress in NASA’s quarterly reports. Without this information, Congress does not know the full extent of potential delays to inform decision making.
NASA partially concurred with our recommendation that the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, the Commercial Crew Program Manager, and the Commercial Crew Program Contracting Officer should collectively determine and document how the agency will determine its risk tolerance level with respect to loss of crew before the agency certification review. In its response, NASA stated that it documented the agency’s risk tolerance level with respect to loss of crew for the program in its May 2011 safety memo. Further, NASA stated that it documented the requirement to limit risks to the loss of crew in a certification requirements document. NASA stated that ultimately the Commercial Crew Program is accountable for ensuring that the contractors’ systems meet the loss of crew value in this certification requirements document, which is a loss of crew value of 1 in 270. If a contractor’s system cannot meet that loss of crew value, or any other requirement, the program will request a waiver as part of the human rating certification process to ensure transparency.
NASA acknowledged in its response that the existence of multiple documents defining residual risk requirements and an agency threshold for loss of crew can be confusing. NASA’s response, however, does not address our finding that it does not have a consistent approach for how to incorporate key inputs, including which debris model should be used or whether to include operational mitigations. NASA stated that it had taken action to address this recommendation; however, NASA did not outline any steps it took to resolve the concern that the risk tolerance for the loss of crew requirement depends on which entity is presenting the results of its analysis. We continue to believe that, before the agency certification review, the key parties must collectively determine how the agency will determine its risk tolerance with respect to loss of crew. We believe this approach will reduce confusion and increase transparency.