2-9-18 5:44 AM EST | Email Article
By Andy Pasztor 

WASHINGTON--The U.S. space agency is working on a novel fallback plan in case new commercial vehicles hit further delays in their schedule to begin ferrying U.S. astronauts into orbit.

Boeing Co. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., called SpaceX and founded by billionaire Elon Musk, are supposed to start routinely transporting crews to the international space station next year.

But the operation of commercial space taxis is already years behind schedule, and the latest deadlines are also in danger of slipping.

As a result, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is considering turning planned test flights of new crew vehicles into modified operational missions to ensure continuous U.S. presence on board the orbiting laboratory.

The potential move was disclosed Thursday, as part of various contingency options, by William Gerstenmaier, head of the agency's human exploration programs.

NASA has contracts to use Russian rockets and capsules to transport astronauts to and from the space station through late 2019. If Boeing and SpaceX aren't ready to take over the job by then, NASA won't have any way to get its crews up there without a contingency plan.

Since "there will be bumps in the road and it will take time" to start routine astronaut trips using American hardware, Mr. Gerstenmaier told an industry-government conference in Washington, current schedules for "test flights might be able to be extended" to later dates. By making each one "almost an operational mission," he said, the agency would be able to plug potential gaps in staffing the space station.

Boeing and SpaceX have previously said they are on track to complete one test flight with people on board by the end of this year. Technical challenges and agency reviews, however, could delay those plans. Regular missions are slated to commence after test flights are finished successfully.

In his speech and a follow-up interview, Mr. Gerstenmaier stressed no final decision has been made. But he said preliminary discussions have started inside NASA, as well as with industry officials, about pushing the test flights into 2019 or later.

The extent of potential test-flight slips will depend on "how late things are and how much of a gap we need to fill," the veteran NASA official said in the interview. Mr. Gerstenmaier described the discussions as "part of normal contingency planning for us."

Still, the latest comments underscore nagging questions inside and outside NASA about the likely schedule for shifting crew transportation to U.S. providers.

"In the worst case, we could potentially downsize" the number of U.S. astronauts on board the space station as a temporary stopgap measure, Mr. Gerstenmaier told conference attendees. But that would reduce the amount of research conducted in orbit. In any case, NASA has several months to weigh alternative strategies.

Mr. Gerstenmaier said Boeing and SpaceX have made good progress on their respective crew vehicles, and the agency has "almost six months of margin on the schedules"--meaning they can be up to half a year behind deadline, and still avoid a gap.

After fatal explosions of two space shuttles in 1986 and 2003, NASA committed to making future spacecraft substantially safer than the shuttle fleet that was then operating.

Yet as NASA works to certify separate transport systems developed by the contractors, agency experts are wrestling with challenging safety and schedule trade-offs. In his speech, Mr. Gerstenmaier said his intention is to "openly talk about the risks" inherent in space travel and "not rush decisions" to meet arbitrary deadlines. "We need to accept risk and move forward."

NASA has a longstanding requirement that commercial crew systems meet certain statistical safety benchmarks before ferrying astronauts. The agency has established that risk standard as no greater than one possible fatal accident in 270 flights. Although it still seems perilous, the standard is a reflection of the technical hurdles confronting the contractors. The standard is more than four times safer than the space shuttle fleet that was retired in 2011 under budgetary strains and safety concerns.

But NASA officials and the agency's top independent safety watchdogs have repeatedly said it may be difficult to precisely comply with the new standard, partly because of radiation exposure levels during typical trips to the space station and six-month stints for astronauts in orbit.

Even if the agency opts for some contingency plans, Mr. Gerstenmaier and his colleagues may have to issue certain safety waivers before commercial crew capsules can begin making regular trips.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 09, 2018 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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