Report: NASA needs backup plan as US crew launches slip (Update)

July 11, 2018 by Marcia Dunn
Report: NASA needs backup plan as US crew launches slip
In this Feb. 9, 2016 photo made available by NASA, a mockup of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, in development in partnership with NASA's Commercial Crew Program, splashes into a 20-foot-deep basin at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., during testing of the spacecraft's landing systems design. On Wednesday, July 11, 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said NASA needs a backup plan for getting astronauts to space, given additional delays on the horizon for new commercial crew capsules. (David C. Bowman/NASA via AP)

NASA needs a backup plan for getting astronauts to space, given additional delays on the horizon for new commercial crew capsules, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recommended Wednesday.

That's the top suggestion in the GAO's latest report on the SpaceX and Boeing crew capsules under development.

Both companies have been shooting for test flights by the end of this year. But the GAO warned in its 47-page report that despite progress, further delays are likely. If postponements keep mounting, the GAO fears there could be a gap in U.S. access to the International Space Station.

With its last shuttle flight seven years ago this month, NASA has been paying Russia up to $82 million a seat to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But that contract is up at the end of next year.

"NASA is considering potential options, but it does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted U.S. access," the report by the Congressional watchdog agency stated.

The audit also found that NASA lacks a consistent approach in gauging crew risk in these new spacecraft.

"NASA must balance safety with acceptable risk for human spaceflight," the report stated.

NASA's human explorations chief, William Gerstenmaier, said the space agency is actively working on options to keep Americans living and working, uninterrupted, at the station. He also noted that while the different documentation for measuring crew risk can be confusing, it is up to NASA's commercial crew program to assure the proper safety guidelines.

Report: NASA needs backup plan as US crew launches slip
In this Thursday, July 6, 2017 photo made available by NASA, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addresses NASA employees, in front of, from left, the SpaceX Dragon, NASA's Orion, and Boeing's Starliner at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. On Wednesday, July 11, 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said NASA needs a backup plan for getting astronauts to space, given additional delays on the horizon for new commercial crew capsules. (Aubrey Gemignani/NASA via AP)

SpaceX and Boeing have been vying to be the first to return Americans to space from U.S. soil since 2014, three years after NASA's shuttle program ended. That's when NASA awarded contracts totaling nearly $7 billion to SpaceX and Boeing to develop crew capsules and demonstrate them in flight. The agreement called for the spacecraft to be certified by 2017.

The SpaceX capsule is a beefed-up, human-rated version of the Dragon capsule already used to deliver cargo; Boeing's craft is named Starliner.

Each company plans a test flight without passengers, before putting astronauts on board.

Currently, there are three Americans at the space station, along with two Russians and a German.


The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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not rated yet Jul 11, 2018
Space x was committed to very high levels of sequential changes in the falcon 9 booster, in order to try and reach the final iteration for reuseability and reliability.

They have completed that task, and now the block 5 booster units will begin use, with little to no further major changes to the entire package.

What is left, is the desired 7 flights with no issues, for the dragon crew capsule, before NASA approves it for human use.

The reasoning behind 7 flights with no issues before approval, seems to be tied to the final 'safety' level of the overall shuttle program.

NASA thought it would be incredibly safe, ie less than one failure in many hundreds.

The final life loss vs flight numbers for the shuttle program, when it ended, was a very sobering either one in seven or one in twelve 'chance of dying'. (can't remember the exact number, but that's the range)

So the dragon has to meet at least that minimal spec, before it is approved for human use.
not rated yet Jul 12, 2018
There were 135 launches of the Space Shuttle and two fatal accidents that killed all crew members.

One was a launch failure (Challenger), one was a re-entry failure (Columbia).

For launches, that's a failure rate of 1 in 135, or 0.74%.

For successful missions, that's a failure rate of 2 in 135, or 1.48%.

The "chance of dying" on any flight was 1 in 67.5.


So far the only extensive flight testing for new manned flight systems has been for the launch systems, but it's just as important to make certain that the rest of the mission, including the hazardous re-entry, also is survivable.

We need to get astronauts up there, and then get them back down here alive and well.

Reliable rockets will solve only half of the problem, but they need to get the first half correct before it makes sense to solve the second half of the problem.

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