Space Jam

For the past few years, the U.S. has relied on Russia to shuttle its astronauts to the ISS. Delays in private sector development might prolong the problems.

Photo illustration: Spacebound rockets with the U.S. flag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Despite being the world’s premier space superpower, America hasn’t launched astronauts into space from its own soil in seven years. For the 30 years before that, we launched astronauts from our own turf via our Space Shuttle program, but NASA retired the program in 2011 when the government decided it would be more cost-effective to outsource NASA’s low–Earth orbit space travel needs to the commercial sector.

The only problem was the commercial sector wasn’t ready yet. NASA, through its Commercial Crew Program, has been waiting on Boeing and SpaceX to put the finishing touches on their own crew vehicles designed to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station. There was always going to be a delay in U.S. soil–based sendoffs—the initial timeline was to have the vehicles ready to send astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017—but that pause might prove more prolonged than government officials originally thought, in part because the government has inadequately funded the efforts. As a result, both companies have run into delay after delay, causing the U.S. Government Accountability Office to now predict that we might have to wait until 2020 before those vehicles are certified for crewed spaceflight.

“We found that the [CCP’s] own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing,” Christina Chaplain, GAO director of acquisition and sourcing management, told the House Subcommittee on Space last month. If those predictions hold true, NASA might be unable to send astronauts into space for at least a few months (and possibly longer), which could disrupt ISS operations and prolong our reliance on Russia for astronaut transport.

First established by NASA in 2009, the CCP was supposed to be a win-win situation for everyone involved. Private space companies in need of investment would finally have the opportunity and funding to develop and test human spaceflight technologies. Meanwhile, the government could divert some of the $1.5 billion spent on every space shuttle mission toward other projects, like developing a deep-space launch vehicle that could send finally send humans to Mars one day. The only rough patch would be relying on Russia’s Soyuz missions in the interim to get U.S. astronauts to the ISS.

Unfortunately, “Congress, in its wisdom, provided inadequate resources to the CCP in its early years,” says John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “It’s Congress that put NASA and its partners behind the time curve.”

Congress only allocated $270 million to the CCP in its 2011 budget—far short of the $500 million initially requested. And then it continued to lowball budget requests over the next several years: in 2012, CCP received $406 million out a request for $850 million; 2013, $488 million of a $830 million request; 2014, $696 million out of $821 million requested. Finally, in 2015, Congress gave the CCP $805 million—95 percent of an initial request for $848 million.

But the damage was already done. NASA didn’t award its final CCP contracts for launch services until September 2014. The companies selected, Boeing for its CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX for its Crew Dragon, started running behind schedule almost immediately. Test flight dates were repeatedly pushed back, as was the initial goal to start flying crews to the station by early 2017. Boeing and SpaceX now expect to attain certification by January and February 2019, respectively; although it’s clear from the Chaplain’s testimony that NASA has some doubts that it will happen. According to Chaplain’s testimony, out of 12 quarterly reviews held by CCP thus far, Boeing and SpaceX respectively reported schedule delays six times and nine times.

But meanwhile, relations between the U.S. and Russia have cratered to all-time lows since the Cold War. Although NASA and Roscosmos (Russia’s space agency) have managed to remain partners, U.S. officials have always loathed the idea of the U.S. relying on Russia for its human spaceflight needs. The White House, Congress, the military—everyone wants to see the U.S. launch its astronauts from American soil once again.

The delays, now headed into their second year, have forced NASA to extend its agreement with Roscosmos and buy more Soyuz flight seats to the ISS, inhibiting the ability of American officials to put pressure on Putin and his government, in order to safeguard continued American access to the ISS.

But even this stopgap isn’t going to work forever, because Russia doesn’t have any more Soyuz flights on order past fall 2019. It takes three years to produce a Soyuz spacecraft for launch, so even if the U.S. was willing to purchase more seats from Russia, it wouldn’t see those launches occurring until years later. Which means that Boeing and SpaceX need to be certified by fall 2019 in order for the U.S. to avoid a gap in access—something the GAO is pessimistic will happen

If the U.S. loses ISS access, it might force astronauts on board to lengthen their time of stay in order to keep long term experiments running and other operations on schedule. Or, in the event an astronaut is forced to come back to Earth early due to unforeseen circumstances (life in space is, after all, hell on the body and brain), the agency and its partners would have to downsize or cancel some of its other plans to retrieve them.

A few months like this are likely navigable, but it could certainly exert some pressure on some of the research ongoing at ISS, including studies on how microgravity affects human health in the long run, how to grow vegetables in space, and other experiments critical to our understanding of how we’ll one day live off the planet. “The United States has spent tens of billions of dollars to develop, assemble, and operate the ISS over the past two decades, and NASA relies on uninterrupted crew access to help maintain and operate the station itself,” Chaplain said.

NASA is pondering contingency plans, but there’s no clear solution yet. Both companies intend to launch uncrewed test flights this year, with crewed test flights to begin in November. The agency could elect to turn those crewed tests into quasi-operational missions that flies up a NASA astronaut.

That means NASA might have to take on a pretty significant amount of risk. The certification process requires Boeing’s and SpaceX’s vehicles to guarantee a 1 in 270 chance for a loss of crew (compared to 1 in 90 for the space shuttle program). Putting a NASA astronaut in one of these ships before that safety threshold is satisfied basically violates the whole point of the certification process—to ensure astronaut safety—in the first place.

Boeing spokesperson Rebecca Regan offered the following statement on the company’s progress:

We are well aligned with our customer on crew safety and mission assurance, making steady progress on the development and certification of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner system. While we’re focused on meeting our 2018 forecast dates with the Orbital Flight Test in Q3 and Crew Flight Test in Q4, we are committed to performing those safely and at the right time in development.

And a SpaceX spokesperson issued the following:

SpaceX continues to target 2018 for the first demonstration missions with and without crew under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In 2017, significant progress was made towards the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon—one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built—and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.

For its part, Congress is proving as obstinate as ever, doubling down on the stinginess that put the CCP in this mess in the first place. “In order to remedy these problems, NASA may seek additional funding or accept significant risks,” said Texas Rep. Brian Babin, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space. “Neither of those options is viable.”