WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group)- Lawmakers on Capitol Hill gathered Wednesday to evaluate the progress National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing and SpaceX have made in developing a spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond.
Since the end of NASA’s shuttle program in 2011, the space agency has sent their astronauts to the ISS via Russian Soyuz rockets. The price tag for a round-trip ticket per astronaut is more than $80 million, according to a Government Accountability Office Report. However, the contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscocosmos) may lead to a gap in presence of United States astronauts on the ISS.
“NASA’s contract with Roscosmos permits it to delay the use of the final seat by up to 6 months to late spring 2019, with a return flight approximately 6 months later. NASA has not yet developed a contingency plan to ensure an uninterrupted presence on the ISS should the Commercial Crew Program experience further delays,” the report stated.
The House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space invited witnesses from Boeing Space Exploration, NASA, SpaceX and the U.S. Government Accountability Office to Wednesday's hearing. This was the subcommittee’s second hearing in three months to follow up on projects devoted to the future of human spaceflight. In Nov. 2017, the subcommittee met and discussed the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew vehicle, and improvements to ground infrastructure for those projects.
Efforts to advance human spaceflight are in part due to the NASA Transition Authorization Act, signed by President Donald Trump in March 2017. The act approved funding levels for Fiscal Year 2017 set at $19.5 billion.
Chairman of the Subcommittee on Science Rep. Brian Babin, R- Texas, said he wanted to see how working with a partner in the private sector can help advance NASA’s goals “beyond the low-Earth orbit.”
NASA will be busy not only launching new systems, but "developing new business models, new contracting mechanisms, and new ways of approaching every facet of the challenge,” Babin said. “This commercial crew program builds on the commercial cargo program and offers new insights about how government and industry can work together on key tasks.
The congressmen then said that is also a goal to transition the International Space Station to a new operating model within the next decade. When it comes to developing these Commercial Crew Systems, however, NASA’s partners Boeing and SpaceX are behind schedule -- which is raising safety concerns from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle regarding the project.
“Both companies are making progress, but certainly not at the rate that was expected, and not without significant challenges to safety and reliability. In order to remedy these problems, NASA may seek additional funding or accept significant risks.” Babin said. “Neither of those options is viable. As I said at our recent hearing on SLS and Orion, NASA and the contractors have to execute.”
The Ranking Member of the Subcommittee Rep. Ami Bera, D- Calif., echoed concerns about safety pertaining to these new crew launch systems.
"As we think about renewing our commercial crews here domestically, partnering with the commercial sector, safety is paramount,” Bera said. “With regards to today’s hearing, I’m looking at getting information on safety first, within that context. The safety driving the timeline as oppose timeline driving safety.”
Bera added that he believes the right approach is being taken in the partnership with private sector companies.
“I think for national pride, also allowing the United States domestically not to have to rely on another nation certainly is something we think about. You see more commercial interests thinking about building habitats up there” Bera said. “You see people speak about space tourism. So, again as the commercial sector partners with our agencies I think this is incredibly important.”
Witness and Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate at NASA William Gerstenmaier admitted that work on this project has taken longer than originally planned.
“This is a critical time in the program as manufacturing is in high gear, testing is being completed and verification and validation requirements are being addressed by NASA. The program is approximately one year away from the first crew flight to ISS,” Gerstenmaier said.
Gerstenmaier told the committee that when it comes to the safety of the vehicle NASA is involved and working with partners in certain areas.
“There are certain areas we deem higher risk across the systems. We also look at specific designs where problems have occurred,” Gerstenmaier said. “If we see something we don’t like, we can ask the contracts to do extra work for us, or we can do the test ourselves.”
He also told the committee that even when the certification is complete, changes and adjustment might need to be made. Checking the actual performance of the systems to the design performance must occur throughout the process.
“We also must look at the environments in which the vehicle is flying to again make sure that the vehicles have the proper safety margins. We need to be prepared and allow the design to change even after the official formal certification,” Gerstenmaier said.
Vice President and Program Manager of Commercial Programs at Boeing Space Exploration John Mulholland spoke to the subcommittee as a witness and told presiding lawmakers he knows that time is critical for accomplishing this task.
“We have a unique understanding of the strategic importance of having an American-made crew transportation system for safe, reliable and affordable access to low-Earth orbit,” Mulholland said in his opening statement. “We understand that having this capability as soon as possible is critically important for the International Space Station to continue its important mission as a world-class national lab.”
Mulholland explained to the committee that Boeing has been working with NASA, embedding NASA with their team and holding weekly review meetings.
Witness and Vice President of Flight Reliability at SpaceX Dr. Hans Koenigsmann said that his team is doing the same as Boening and meeting regularly with NASA. He told the committee that the Dragon spacecraft will be the safest crewed in history.
“By incorporating robust and redundant flight systems and advanced fault detection and escape capabilities, as well as by leveraging SpaceX’s flight heritage and comprehensive safety culture,” Koenigsmann said. “The spacecraft is a fully autonomous rendezvous and docking vehicle with manual override capability in case of crew need.”
Cristina Chaplain, director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said it has been three weeks since the program's 2017 goal of securing domestic access to the International Space Station, but neither contractor has conducted a test flight.
“In fact, final certification dates have slipped to the first quarter 2019 and we found that the programs own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing,” Chaplain said.
She added that contractor schedules were aggressive at the beginning of the program. However, since then, “Boeing has reported delay six times and SpaceX has reported a delay nine times for at least one key event.”
Chaplain reminded the committee that during the development of the expendable launch vehicle by the Department of Defense, the department experienced similar setbacks.
“They have had a lot of time in the past to learn from mistakes to get safety and mission assurance into the program. In my view, I think some of that learning is still going on here for the providers because they are new vehicles," Chaplain said.
Witness and Chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Dr. Patricia Sanders said the panel is an important point in this process.
“The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel believes that NASA is at a critical juncture,” Sanders said. “Well beyond paper design, with hardware being produced, testing underway, and first flights—uncrewed test flights followed by crewed test flights—on the horizon.”
She emphasized that now is a time when retaining attention to detail is important.
“This is a time when it is important to retain focus on program details; to maintain a sense of urgency while not giving in to schedule pressure and to continue with program plans without neglecting, shortchanging, or deleting planned content.” Sanders said. “We continue to strongly caution that any wavering in commitment negatively impacts cost, schedule, performance, workforce morale, process discipline, and – most importantly – safety.”