They fear that commercial spacecraft could put people at risk and that these companies will miss the crucial two to three year deadline.
As part of the plan, two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, are developing spaceships to take NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. When the two companies were selected by NASA in 2014, the earliest goal was to begin their mission in 2017. However, the project has been postponed repeatedly. Just this month, SpaceX announced that the launch of its first NASA manned spacecraft was delayed by four months.
Wednesday's hearing coincided with the announcement by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) on commercial manned projectsImportant report, Which regularly reviews NASA's agenda. The author of the report claimed that SpaceX did not send the astronauts to the ISS until December 2019, and that Boeing would do so in February 2020. NASA plans to certify their spacecraft only after those companies have completed the unmanned test flights of commercial spacecraft, which means the first astronauts will likely fly as early as the second half of next year. Once certified, commercial spacecraft can begin frequent trips to the ISS.
The report also raised doubts as to whether Boeing and SpaceX could meet NASA's safety standards for the program. NASA asked the two companies to prove that the probability of a commercial spacecraft crash is only 1/270. In other words, 99.6% of commercial manned missions should ensure astronaut safety during the flight. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that the two companies may not be able to meet this standard.
But the U.S. Congress has refused to give NASA and its business partners more leeway. The panel members made it clear that NASA should not expect more funding to help these companies finish deadlines and change safety standards is not a good idea. Brian Babin, Chairman of the House Space Subcommittee, said at the hearing: "The two companies are making progress but will certainly not achieve the expected speed and will not have too much safety and reliability challenges.In order to make up for these problems, NASA may seek additional funding or accept significant risks, neither option is viable. "
The commercial manned project was originally conceived as a more cost-effective way to develop new commercial spacecraft for NASA. NASA will allow commercial companies to develop their own spacecraft, requiring minimal supervision and some government funding. Their idea is that this more "let go" approach will save taxpayer money and give commercial companies greater flexibility in developing spacecraft. These companies also work faster because they are not subject to bureaucratic red tape.
But commercial manned projects are not as fast as expected. One of the reasons may be that these companies set super-strong target dates (GAO states in their report). Stringent safety standards may also fuel the flames and require these companies to do a great deal of additional testing to prove that their spacecraft is reliable and safe. In addition, there are other unforeseen challenges that prevent them from going as planned.
NASA said ultimately, the timetable is not the agency's top priority. Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of human exploration and operations at NASA, said at the hearing: "NASA knows the schedule but it is not driven by the schedule." Currently NASA astronauts can only fly to the ISS via Russian Soyuz rocket NASA has renewed the additional Soyuz 2019 ferry ticket due to delays in commercial manned projects. In addition, the ISS project is currently expected to last until 2024, which means commercial spacecraft may not be able to transport astronauts for a long period of time.
Both the authors and MPs of the GAO report believe that security should be the top priority, which is why they raised many questions about the SpaceX launch record Wednesday at the hearing. Lawmakers have repeatedly asked SpaceX about the details of the Zuma mission. Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of construction and flight reliability at SpaceX, said at the hearing: "We relayed Falcon 9 compliance and it actually performed very well."
In the meantime, according to the GAO report, Boeing has its own problems with an emergency shutdown of the flight system, which may not meet NASA's safety standards.