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When will commercial crew launch?

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly on an uncrewed test flight arrived in Florida last week for launch preparations. That mission is scheduled for launch in August, according to NASA schedules announced earlier this year, but widely expected to slip. (credit: SpaceX)

Early this year, NASA announced an updated schedule of commercial crew test flights. According to that schedule, Boeing would launch an uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in August, followed by a crewed test flight in November. SpaceX would also launch an uncrewed test flight of its Crew Dragon (aka Dragon 2) spacecraft in August, with a crewed test to follow in December. If all went as planned, both companies would be in line to be certified by NASA in early 2019 to carry astronauts on routine ISS missions, ending reliance on Soyuz seats that NASA will lose access to in late 2019.

It’s now mid-July and those dates remain the official NASA schedules for commercial crew missions. Yet there’s been little sign that either company is on track to launch an uncrewed mission next month, or crewed missions later this year, creating fears of potentially extended delays in the program.

That frustration bubbled up late last month during a press conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center the day before the launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft. During the question-and-answer session, reporters asked Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, about the commercial crew schedule.

“I can tell you that the commercial crew program, the International Space Station program, Boeing, and SpaceX are all working very closely together,” he responded. “We’re evaluating exactly when opportunities might be and when they’ll be ready, but we’re not ready to set a date, an official date, I would say, at this point in time. We’re working to that. I think it’s close to when we’ll be able to do it.”

But the fact that NASA still referred to the earlier, official schedule during the briefing caused others to push back. “Those latest dates are August, November, and December, so I think we can forget those dates,” said one reporter, Ken Kremer.

“Just to be honest, I’ve been covering NASA for a long time, and I don’t know anybody but you who says there’s going to be a flight in August,” said veteran reporter Bill Harwood of CBS. “If that’s not real, I don’t know why you all keep telling us that.”

Shireman said that the commercial crew program talks to the companies and gets target dates back from them. “There’s a meeting between the commercial crew program and SpaceX, and the commercial crew program and Boeing, and they agree on a date and that is the target date,” he explained. “So what you see is that target date.”

He acknowledged, though, that NASA hasn’t done a good job explaining all that’s involved in flying those missions. In addition to the readiness of the vehicles themselves, there is also the schedule of other visiting vehicles—including Cygnus, Dragon, HTV, and Progress cargo spacecraft and Soyuz crewed spacecraft—going to and from the station that block out times when a commercial crew demonstration flight can’t go to the station.

“We’re still in negotiation about what those dates will be,” he said of updated commercial crew dates that consider all those factors. “They’ll be forthcoming very soon.”

The issue of target dates and their reliability came up last week in a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on the commercial crew program. That report noted that, in addition to the commercial crew target dates provided by the companies, NASA does its own schedule analysis, focusing in particular on the certification dates that, under current schedules, are January 2019 for Boeing and February 2019 for SpaceX.

According to that NASA analysis, the agency doesn’t expect either company to be certified in early 2019—or perhaps before the end 2019. “In April 2018, the program’s schedule risk analysis found there was zero percent chance that either contractor would achieve its current proposed certification milestone,” the report stated. “The analysis’s average certification date was December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX.”

NASA’s analysis actually provided a range of dates for both companies. That range suggested Boeing could be certified as soon as the spring of 2019, but that it could slip to September 2020. For SpaceX, the company could be certified as soon as mid-2019, but could slip to November 2020.

That poses a problem for NASA because its access to Soyuz seats, including three acquired from Boeing for flights in 2019, runs out late in the year. NASA has talked about some potential ways to find extra time, such as stretching out ISS crew increments slightly so that the last Soyuz mission NASA astronauts can use returns home in early 2020. Another possibility, first mentioned earlier this year, is to modify a crewed test flight of a commercial crew vehicle to carry three astronauts instead of two and stay at the station for weeks or even months.

An issue highlighted in the GAO report, though, was a lack of communication about expected delays. “We found that both contractors have updated schedules that indicate delays are forthcoming for at least one key event, but NASA officials told us they lack confidence in those dates until they are officially communicated to NASA by the contractors,” the report stated. “As a result, NASA is managing a multibillion dollar program without confidence in its schedule information as it approaches several big events, including uncrewed and crewed flight tests.”

The report also noted that, in quarterly reports on the program NASA is required to provide to Congress, it gives only the targeted launch dates from the contractors, and not its own, and arguably more skeptical, risk assessment of them. “Given the frequency with which the contractors delay key events in their schedules, the program’s schedule risk assessment provides valuable insight into potential delays that NASA currently is not providing to Congress,” the GAO argued.

The GAO recommended to NASA that it provide those schedule risk assessments in those quarterly reports. The agency, though, rejected that recommendation, the only one of five in the report the agency said it would not implement at all. “NASA believes this current reporting approach is appropriate and in accordance” with past direction provided by Congress, the agency said in a response signed by NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier, chief engineer Ralph Roe, and chief of safety and mission assurance Terry Wilcutt.

“As we are now getting closer to launch, we expect and will be working to ensure that the partners’ schedules and NASA’s internal assessments are in agreement,” they added. “There will not be a requirement for a detailed NASA risk assessment. The partners’ schedule risk assessment will match NASA’s analysis or NASA will discuss our position as we have in the past.”

The GAO continued to argue for including schedule risk assessments in reports to Congress. “Both contractors have repeatedly stated that their schedules are aggressive and that the dates are ambitious,” it stated in its response to NASA’s response to its recommendations. “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.”

For now, there’s little reason to believe either company will be performing test launches next month, or perhaps for some time to come. Last week, SpaceX announced that the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will fly on that uncrewed test flight arrived at its Florida facilities after completing thermal vacuum and acoustics testing at NASA’s Plum Brook Facility in Ohio. The company, though, hasn’t disclosed what additional testing and preparations are planned for the vehicle, and the company’s launch schedule is already set through mid-August with other Falcon 9 missions.

That probably means more press conferences where NASA officials are pressed to explain commercial crew schedules and uncertainty about when Boeing’s and SpaceX’s vehicles will finally be ready to fly.


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