Boeing and SpaceX May Need to Wait Until 2019 to Transport Astronauts

Updated on
  • Government Accountability Office warns of certification delays
  • Report recommends NASA have backup plan amid safety risks

Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from space launch complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, before exploding, on June 28, 2015.

Photographer: Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images

Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. won’t be certified this year to send astronauts to space and may be delayed into 2019 because of potential safety hazards, according to U.S. investigators.

Boeing parachute systems haven’t been adequately evaluated and SpaceX engine turbines have cracked during testing, the Government Accountability Office said in a report Thursday that outlines risks to the company programs. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration agreed to renegotiate its contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to delay certification reviews that had been scheduled for this year, the GAO said.

The certification lag is significant because the U.S.’s contract with Russia for transportation to the International Space Station expires in 2019. Any lapse between when the contract with Russia ends and when Boeing or Elon Musk’s SpaceX are ready would hamper returns on the billions of dollars NASA has invested in the station, the GAO said.

“Given the delays in the Commercial Crew Program, GAO recommends that NASA develop and report to Congress on its contingency plans for maintaining a U.S. presence on the ISS beyond 2018,” the agency wrote in its report.

Since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, American astronauts have relied on Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, to ferry them to the station. NASA selected both Boeing and SpaceX in 2014 to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities.

Rocket Risks

NASA is reviewing Boeing’s parachute testing plans to determine whether they’ll generate enough data, the GAO said in its report. Officials with NASA and the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp., also have struggled to access design data related to the Russian-built engine Boeing uses to verify that it meets certification requirements.

At SpaceX, NASA told the company that cracking in the turbines of its engine during testing in 2015 pose “an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight,” according to the report. The GAO wrote that SpaceX officials said the company is making design changes to address the issue.

“We work closely with NASA every day on the Commercial Crew Program, and we continually communicate details regarding our progress, challenges and schedule,” Bill Barksdale, a Boeing spokesman, said in an e-mail. A SpaceX spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The GAO’s findings follow a September report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, which warned of “multiple challenges that will likely delay the first routine flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS until late 2018.” Agency funding challenges, delays in NASA’s evaluation process and technical challenges with spacecraft designs have all contributed to the program falling behind schedule.