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NASA Certification Process Could Delay Commercial Crew Program

NASA's Commercial Crew program will send astronauts to the International Space Station via commercial partners SpaceX and Boeing. Photo: NASA

Private companies Boeing and SpaceX are moving closer to launching NASA astronauts to the space station from U.S. soil, but  a government agency is worried that red tape could delay the program.

NASA awarded up to $6.8 billion to Boeing and SpaceX to each develop capsules and rocket that can send astronauts to the International Space Station.

A SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule recently arrived on Florida’s Space Coast  and Boeing’s Starliner capsule is at Kennedy Space Center getting ready for its demonstration. Both will launch uncrewed test flights for NASA, then the agency will review the data from the flight before giving a green-light to launch astronauts.

But a recent report by the Government Accountability Office worries that NASA’s qualification might take too much time. Currently, the space agency pays Russia for rides to the station, but only has contracts for rides through next year. Certification could go beyond that date, putting the U.S. presence on the station at risk.

According to an analysis in April of this year, the estimated certification date for Boeing is December 2019 and January 2020 for SpaceX — both beyond the last contract with Russia, which is November 2019.

A delay in qualifying Boeing and SpaceX could lead to a gap in U.S. presence on the station. The report also said NASA hasn’t come up with a consistent metric to measure the probability of death or permanent disability to an astronaut. The GAO recommends NASA develop a contingency plan and solidify its risk tolerance process.

SpaceX and Boeing are targeting uncrewed test launches in the first quarter of 2019.

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Brendan Byrne

About Brendan Byrne

Space Reporter and 'Intersection' Producer

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts "Are We There Yet?", WMFE's space exploration podcast He also helps produce WMFE's twice-weekly public affairs show "Intersection," working with host Matthew Peddie to shape the ... Read Full Bio »