Since its inception, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has been hampered by setback after setback, and it looks like even more delays are on the horizon for the fledgling initiative.
The program — which tasks US private companies with building spacecraft that can transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station — was originally supposed to get off the ground in 2017.
But SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies that are developing these crewed spacecraft for NASA, probably won’t have their vehicles certified to carry astronauts until 2019.
That’s according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, a federal agency that does audits for Congress.
The report highlights a number of problems that threaten to push back the first crewed flights for the Commercial Crew Program, such as design challenges and risks that need to be addressed by both SpaceX and Boeing.
Because of the likelihood for delays, the GAO report recommends that NASA come up with a backup plan for getting its astronauts to the ISS beyond 2018.
Currently, NASA astronauts only have one way to get to the station:
on Russia’s Soyuz rocket.
The space agency has to buy seats on the Soyuz for its astronauts — tickets that cost about $80 million per person.
But once the Commercial Crew Program gets up and running, NASA astronauts will be able to launch on American made vehicles again, for a relatively cheaper cost.
For the program, Boeing is developing a crew capsule called the CST-100 Starliner, which is meant to launch on top of the Atlas V rocket manufactured by the United Launch Alliance.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is upgrading its Dragon cargo capsule, which is already used to ship supplies to the station, so that it can carry humans to space.
This Crew Dragon is meant to fly on top of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA has announced the first crewed flight by a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station (ISS) is expected to take place in June 2019.
It will be the first manned US launch to the orbiting research laboratory since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, forcing US astronauts to hitch costly rides aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
A flight on Boeing spacecraft is set to follow in August 2019.
The timetable for both launches has already been postponed several times, but NASA said Thursday it would now be providing monthly updates on deadlines.
“This new process for reporting our schedule is better; nevertheless, launch dates will still have some uncertainty, and we anticipate they may change as we get closer to launch,” said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters.
“These are new spacecraft, and the engineering teams have a lot of work to do before the systems will be ready to fly.”
Both missions are considered tests: the two astronauts transported in each flight will spend two weeks aboard the orbiting ISS before returning to Earth.
In the long term, NASA will use SpaceX and Boeing to take astronauts to the ISS for regular missions, which last about six months.
SpaceX will carry out an uncrewed test in January 2019, and Boeing in March 2019.
SpaceX will use its Falcon 9 rocket for its launch with a Crew Dragon capsule attached on top.
Boeing’s Starliner ship will be propelled into space by an Atlas V rocket made by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture with Lockheed Martin.
NASA is depending on the success of both missions as its contract with the Russian space agency expires in November 2019.