US vice president to Boeing, SpaceX: You’ve got until the spring

Meanwhile, NASA inspector general releases damning report detailing huge ‘unnecessary costs’ and preferential treatment.

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Crew Dragon spacecraft
SpaceX - whose Falcon 9 rocket is seen here carrying an unmanned Crew Dragon spacecraft bound for the International Space Station - and Boeing are contracted to NASA to provide commercially-operated crew launch systems [March 2: Joe Skipper/Reuters]

United States Vice President Mike Pence has announced that Boeing and SpaceX, the private US aerospace companies contracted to provide NASA’s astronauts their ride to the International Space Station (ISS), would begin their Commercial Crew space transport operations within roughly four months.

The vice president made his announcement on Thursday at the same time that NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released a damning report depicting a space agency willing to accept serious delays and to pay Boeing hundreds of millions of dollars for cost overruns.

Pence told a crowd of engineers and scientists working at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, “After years of being out of the launch business, we’re going to be back. And before spring arrives next year, we’re going to send American astronauts on American rockets, from American soil, back into space.

“We’re going to have our own platforms to take us back, and we don’t need to hitch a ride with the Russians any more,” he said.

In light of the OIG report, Pence’s deadline puts SpaceX – and more specifically Boeing – on notice that missed deadlines and cost overruns associated with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program are no longer acceptable. The OIG report states that delivery of a reliable launch system – rocket and spacecraft – is already two years behind schedule.

The NASA Commercial Crew Program’s intent has been to support the US private sector in developing multiple commercially-operated crewed launch systems to provide the space agency with “reliable and cost-effective access to and from the International Space Station”.

Very bad timing

The NASA OIG report could not have come a more damaging time. NASA is already facing stiff resistance in the US House of Representatives, where members are baulking at its $22.6bn budget request for 2020.

Currently, the US government is being funded by a continuing resolution set to expire in seven days on November 21. While Congress is expected to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government open, NASA’s need for the extra money, and its ability to spend it wisely, is unresolved.

The OIG found that for the Commercial Crew Program, NASA agreed to pay Boeing an extra $287.2m on top of a multibillion-dollar fixed price contract. The payments, according to the report, were intended to help the Seattle-based company take the necessary steps to make up for lost time.

Boeing capsule test
NASA parachutes guide Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule to the ground after a test of its launch abort system at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The capsule carried no astronauts, just a test dummy [November 4: NASA via AP]

The OIG asserted that the “schedule slippage” was because Boeing missed a milestone deadline by 13 months, “and due to Boeing seeking higher prices than those specified in its fixed price contract”.

“In our judgment, the additional compensation was unnecessary,” the OIG wrote.

In a response published with the report, NASA contested the OIG’s conclusion saying that it was a baseless, three-years-stale “opinion”.

NASA’s Acting Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Kenneth Bowersox wrote, “Although the OIG does not recommend recovery of the questioned costs identified in the report, we do not agree that the dollar amounts cited were questionable, unnecessary, or unreasonable.”

Al Jazeera contacted NASA by email for comment, but no response was made available.

Boeing, in a statement released to Al Jazeera on Thursday night, said that the renegotiated contract offered NASA better terms that, in effect, increased Boeing’s financial risk.

“The structure of the original contract would have increased cost and schedule uncertainty and would have limited NASA’s flexibility in mission planning,” the company said.

“Boeing is also now holding all of the up-front mission costs, which NASA will not have to pay until after each mission is officially ordered and given the Authority to Proceed,” it said.

Crew capsule tests

As part of the Commercial Crew Program certification, last week Boeing successfully conducted a critical “pad abort test” to prove that the company’s space capsule can whisk astronauts away from danger and safely land in the case of an emergency during a future launch.

Boeing’s launch system, called the Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft, has been designed to be a reusable capsule capable of taking up to seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, up into low earth orbit.

On Wednesday, SpaceX successfully conducted a series of static fire engine tests of its Commercial Crew Program spacecraft, the Crew Dragon. Last April, during a similar test, there was an explosion that engulfed and destroyed the capsule.

Where NASA’s money has gone

In 2010, the year before the Space Shuttle was decommissioned, NASA started the Commercial Crew Program and initially inked Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with eight aerospace companies.

By 2014, NASA chose to award the second and final phase agreements to Boeing and SpaceX, which took the form of firm-fixed-price contracts, to pay for further development, test flights and, perhaps most notably, crewed missions to the ISS.

According to the OIG report, these second-phase contracts in May of this year were worth $6.8bn, with Boeing accounting for $4.3bn, and its competitor SpaceX garnering roughly $2.5bn.

Boeing Co's CST-100 Starliner astronaut capsule
Boeing will test its CST-100 Starliner astronaut capsule again next month [January 15: Eric M. Johnson/Reuters]

In addition, NASA has paid up through 2020 an averageof $85.4m a seat to Roscosmos, formerly known as Russia’s Federal Space Agency, to send its astronauts on 70 completed and planned missions to the ISS on board Soyuz rockets.

Since 2017, the year when Commercial Crew Program launches were originally scheduled, NASA has paid approximately $1bn for 12 seats to send US astronauts to the ISS on Soyuz rockets, according to the OIG report.

Boeing’s Starliner system will undergo another critical NASA certification test next month, when Boeing and the United Launch Alliance are scheduled to test launch an uncrewed spacecraft atop a ULA Atlas V rocket.

Boeing’s spokesperson, Jerry Drelling, told Al Jazeera that if the orbital test flight goes according to plan, the deadline will be achievable.

“We are looking forward to the uncrewed launch, which will give us the data because remember that this is about safely transporting astronauts to and from the space station. We expect that we will be able to make that deadline,” Drelling said.

Source: Al Jazeera