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article imageGAO: NASA needs a backup plan to maintain presence at ISS

By Karen Graham     Jul 14, 2018 in Technology
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is in jeopardy, according to a report published this week by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and they want NASA to come up with a contingency plan for getting American astronauts to the ISS.
The recommendation to come up with a contingency plan to get U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station is the major takeaway in a 47-page report from the government watchdog agency, released three days ago.
This is just the latest report from the GAO on the SpaceX and Boeing crew capsules under development for what is known as NASA's Commercial Crew Program. This latest issue plaguing NASA comes as SpaceX and Boeing are facing manufacturing delays and recertification hurdles.
The report acknowledges that SpaceX and Boeing have made "progress developing their crew transportation systems," but that "both contractors have further delayed the certification milestone to early 2019."
Space Shuttle Discovery landing at Barksdale AFB  LA
Space Shuttle Discovery landing at Barksdale AFB, LA
The two companies were awarded contracts worth $7 billion in 2014, three years after NASA's shuttle program ended, with SpaceX and Boeing agreeing to develop crew capsules and demonstrate them in flight. The agreement called for the spacecraft to be certified by 2017.
Losing access to the International Space Station
Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the space agency has relied on Russia to carry American astronauts aboard its Soyuz capsule to the space station, paying up to $82 million a seat. But the contract is up at the end of 2019.
Additional delays could result in a gap in U.S. access to the space station as NASA has contracted for seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft only through November 2019. Even though NASA is considering potential options, it does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted U.S. access.
Crew Dragon is at @NASA’s Plum Brook Station testing facility in Ohio  home to the largest thermal...
Crew Dragon is at @NASA’s Plum Brook Station testing facility in Ohio, home to the largest thermal vacuum chamber in the world, to demonstrate its capability to withstand the extreme temperatures and vacuum of space.
Basically, the GOA report warns that the U.S. may lose its ability to send astronauts to space for a period lasting nine months or more, according to Gizmodo.
NASA's certification process found lacking
The latest estimates by the GAO show that SpaceX's Dragon capsule will not be certified until February 2019, while Boeing's Starliner is set for certification in January 2019. But this is not the big problem, according to the report.
The report says NASA’s rather vague certification process, which is needed to determine if these new capsules will be safe enough for human spaceflight, lacks any consistency: The space agency has "not identified a consistent approach for how to assess the loss of a crew. As a result, officials across NASA have multiple ways of assessing the metric that may yield different results."
This is an an artist s conception of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
This is an an artist's conception of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.
NASA - Photo ID: KSC-2011-8114.
And most depressing of all, the government audit report states: the “Commercial Crew Program’s schedule risk analysis shows that the certification milestone is likely to slip.” This is not good, and NASA really could lose access to the space station.
GAO recommendations
GAO made five recommendations, including that NASA develops a contingency plan for ensuring a U.S. presence on the ISS and clarify how it will determine its risk tolerance for loss of crew. Another recommendation was for the results of its schedule risk analysis was to be included in its mandatory quarterly reports to Congress.
GAO also wants all the different departments to collectively determine and document before the agency certification review how the agency will determine its risk tolerance level with respect to loss of crew. And then, after NASA completes the agency's certification review, GAO wants the agency to document lessons learned related to loss of crew as a safety threshold for future crewed spaceflight missions, given the complexity of the metric.
As the ISS de-orbits  the world will be in need a of a new space station; Axiom is taking on this ch...
As the ISS de-orbits, the world will be in need a of a new space station; Axiom is taking on this challenge, creating the first international commercial space station to host government astronauts, private companies, and individual explorers alike.
Axiom Space
Bottom line? Of course NASA needs a backup plan, and of course, through all the years we have had a space program, we have always put the safety of our astronauts first in certifying and assessing the risks in every mission. And yes, NASA's current certification plan is meandering and seemingly confusing, so, they need to fix it.
But still, this writer also looks at the risks associated with rushing to get something done. I'm talking about the time-frame for having a contingency plan in place before our contract with Russia for rides on their rocket expires. Granted, this should have been in the works several years ago, but now we are in the countdown phase. Not good?
More about NASA, Iss, gao, Commercial crew capsules, Astronauts
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