Technology

SpaceX, Boeing May Leave NASA Astronauts Grounded In 2019

SpaceX and Boeing have secured contracts with NASA to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2019, but they might not be able to do that. It sounds like their spacecraft might not be ready before the contract with Russia ends.

SpaceX Rocket Launch
Image Credit: SpaceX-Imagery / Pixabay

GAO warns that SpaceX, Boeing are behind schedule

The Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that neither SpaceX nor Boeing appears to be in a position indicating that they will be ready to shuttle astronauts to the ISS by 2019. As a result, NASA has agreed to put together a Plan B that will be enacted if they aren’t ready in time, according to Space.com.

Both SpaceX and Boeing are working on shuttles to transport NASA astronauts for the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. The agency awarded the multi-billion dollar contracts in 2014, and at first, the companies said they could be ready to transport astronauts to and from the ISS starting this year.

However, that’s definitely not going to happen because the two companies have scheduled safety certifications on their systems for the second half of next year.

NASA may have to extend deal with Russia

The GAO’s report on Thursday offered several reasons neither of the two government contractors will be able to fulfill the original schedule. It also calls for NASA to come up with a backup plan in case they aren’t ready to go by 2019, which is when the contract with Russia ends.

Russia has been using its Soyuz space capsules to transport NASA’s astronauts to and from the ISS since the space shuttles were retired, and the U.S. has been forking over $70 million a seat for its astronauts to hitch a ride. If SpaceX and/ or Boeing aren’t ready by the time the contract ends, then NASA will have to try to extend the contract.

Can the contract even be extended?

Relations between the U.S. haven’t been exactly friendly over the last several decades, and President Donald Trump’s vows to repair relations have raised more than a few eyebrows. The allegations about Russia helping him get elected are sure to make the renegotiation process even rockier than the space partnership may already be.

According to the GAO report, the contracting process usually takes about three years. Given that there are only two years left on the country, NASA astronauts may be grounded for a time.

“Without a viable contingency option for ensuring uninterrupted access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, NASA risks not being able to maximize the return on its multibillion dollar investment in the space station,” the GAO report warns.

SpaceX working on its Dragon spacecraft

Elon Musk’s SpaceX aims to pair its Falcon 9 rocket with one of its Dragon spacecraft to shuttle NASA astronauts to the ISS and back. The Dragon it plans to use will be a modified version that has been updated so it can transport humans. According to the GAO, SpaceX was set for another certification review in the second quarter of this year, but that review has been pushed back by more than a year — to the third quarter of next year.

Boeing plans to use its CST-100 spacecraft on top of an Atlas V rocket built by the United Launch Alliance. Its certification review has also been pushed back by more than a year, from the third quarter of this year to the fourth quarter of next year.

Unfortunately, both companies are bringing things down to the wire, however. The GAO said that if SpaceX and Boeing keep these two deadlines, they might be able to start test flights next year and then be ready to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS in 2019.

Officials added that both companies have made progress in the development of their systems, “but both also have aggressive development schedules that are increasingly under pressure.” They added that there are some challenges that could further delay the process and keep one or both of the two companies’ systems from becoming certified next year.

SpaceX did say earlier this month that it’s preparing for its fastest launch pace ever thanks to its new Florida site, but it’s unclear whether the increased pace will extend beyond launches to the development of the NASA system.