NASA Commercial Crew Program: Plan Needed to Ensure Uninterrupted Access to the International Space Station
NASA contracted with two companies, Boeing and SpaceX, to develop vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. Neither is expected to be ready until 2019.
Before any missions happen, NASA will have to certify that both contractors' vehicles are safe for human spaceflight. One way that NASA will assess safety is the loss of crew metric, which captures the probability of a crew member's death or disability. However, NASA doesn't have a consistent approach for calculating this metric, so results can vary based on who within NASA is conducting the analysis.
We recommended that NASA clarify how it will assess loss of crew.
Boeing and SpaceX Crew Transportation Systems
Artist rendering of Boeing and SpaceX Crew Transportation Systems
What GAO Found
Both of the Commercial Crew Program's contractors, Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), are making progress finalizing designs and building hardware for their crew transportation systems, but both contractors continue to delay their certification milestone (see figure). Certification is the process that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will use to ensure that each contractor's system meets its requirements for human spaceflight for the Commercial Crew Program.
Commercial Crew Program: SpaceX and Boeing's Certification Delays as of First Quarter Calendar Year 2018
Further delays are likely as the Commercial Crew Program's schedule risk analysis shows that the certification milestone is likely to slip. The analysis identifies a range for each contractor, with an earliest and latest possible completion date, as well as an average. The average certification date was December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX, according to the program's April 2018 analysis. Since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011, the United States has been relying on Russia to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). 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. NASA is considering potential options, but it does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted U.S. access.
NASA's certification process addresses the safety of the contractors' crew transportation systems through several mechanisms, but there are factors that complicate the process. One of these factors is the loss of crew metric that was put in place to capture the probability of death or permanent disability to an astronaut. NASA has not identified a consistent approach for how to assess loss of crew. As a result, officials across NASA have multiple ways of assessing the metric that may yield different results. Consequently, the risk tolerance level that NASA is accepting with loss of crew varies based upon which entity is presenting the results of its assessment. Federal internal controls state that management should define risk tolerances so they are clear and measurable. Without a consistent approach for assessing the metric, the agency as a whole may not clearly capture or document its risk tolerance with respect to loss of crew.
Why GAO Did This Study
In 2014, NASA awarded two firm-fixed-price contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, worth a combined total of up to $6.8 billion, to develop crew transportation systems and conduct initial missions to the ISS. In February 2017, GAO found that both contractors had made progress, but their schedules were under mounting pressure. The contractors were originally required to provide NASA all the evidence it needed to certify that their systems met its requirements by 2017.
A House report accompanying H.R. 5393 included a provision for GAO to review the progress of NASA's human exploration programs. This report examines the Commercial Crew Program, including (1) the extent to which the contractors have made progress towards certification and (2) how NASA's certification process addresses safety of the contractors' crew transportation systems. GAO analyzed contracts, schedules, and other documentation and spoke with officials from NASA, the Commercial Crew Program, Boeing, SpaceX, and two of NASA's independent review bodies that provide oversight.
GAO is making five recommendations, including that NASA develop 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. NASA concurred with three recommendations; partially concurred on the recommendation related to loss of crew; and non-concurred with a recommendation to report its schedule analysis to Congress. GAO believes these recommendations remain valid, as discussed in the report.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations should direct the Commercial Crew Program to include the results of its schedule risk analysis in its mandatory quarterly reports to Congress. (Recommendation 1)||
NASA did not concur with our recommendation that the Commercial Crew Program should include the results of its schedule analysis in its quarterly reports to Congress. Since we made this recommendation, one contractor, SpaceX, has been certified and the program no longer generates schedule risk analysis for the other contractor, Boeing. In addition, NASA is no longer submitting quarterly reports to Congress. As a result, there is no longer an opportunity for NASA to take action on this recommendation.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||
Priority Rec.The NASA Administrator should develop and maintain a contingency plan for ensuring a presence on the ISS until a Commercial Crew Program contractor is certified. (Recommendation 2)
NASA agreed with this recommendation. While NASA took some actions to maintain a U.S. presence on the ISS, such as purchasing multiple seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for NASA crew and providing us periodic updates on NASA's considerations for maintaining a continued presence, it did not develop and maintain a contingency plan. We are closing this recommendation as not implemented because NASA certified a Commercial Crew program contractor in November 2020. As a result, there is no longer an opportunity for NASA to take action on this recommendation.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Administrator should direct the Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, the Commercial Crew Program Manager, and the Commercial Crew Program Contracting Officer 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. (Recommendation 3)||
NASA partially concurred with our recommendation, stating that ultimately the Commercial Crew Program is accountable for ensuring that the contractors' systems meet the loss of crew value of 1 in 270. The Commercial Crew Program determined the loss of crew risk tolerance level for the contractors' crew transportation systems-Boeing, in August 2019, and SpaceX, in March 2020-and documented that each contractor met the loss of crew requirement in its contract.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||After completing the agency certification review, NASA's Chief Engineer and Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance, with support from the NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations and the Commercial Crew Program Manager, should document lessons learned related to loss of crew as a safety threshold for future crewed spaceflight missions, given the complexity of the metric. (Recommendation 4)||
NASA concurred with our recommendation to document lessons learned related to the loss of crew requirement. In July 2022, NASA told us that they expect to take action to close this recommendation by May 2023.
|National Aeronautics and Space Administration||The NASA Chief of Safety and Mission Assurance should restructure the technical authority within the Commercial Crew Program to ensure that the technical authority for the Office of Safety and Mission Assurance is no longer dual hatted with programmatic and independent technical authority responsibilities. (Recommendation 5)||
NASA concurred with this recommendation. In July 2018, NASA approved a policy that clarified the separation of safety and mission assurance programmatic and independent technical authority responsibilities into two unique and distinct positions. NASA also has two separate individuals serving in the two roles for the Commercial Crew Program.