Commercial crew providers remain confident in schedules

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The two companies developing commercial crew vehicles are confident that they will be ready to start carrying astronauts in 2018 despite a recent report that concluded delays into 2019 were likely.

The comments by executives with Boeing and SpaceX, made at separate events here Feb. 17, came a day after a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the program reported that NASA expects certification reviews of the two companies’ vehicles, currently scheduled for 2018, will slip to 2019.

“The Commercial Crew Program is tracking risks that both contractors could experience additional schedule delays and its own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019,” the GAO stated in the report, which discussed technical issues both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft are facing.

During a press conference outside Launch Complex 39A here Feb. 17, prior to the Feb. 19 launch of a Falcon 9 carrying a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said she believed the company would still be able to fly a crewed Dragon mission in 2018.

“I’m confident we’ll fly crew in 2018,” she said. “The response to the report this morning was, ‘The hell we won’t fly before 2019.’”

Shotwell discussed one specific issue in the report that attracted media attention prior to the report’s publication, concerns about cracks in turbines in the Falcon 9’s engines. “We’ve flown with cracks in our turbine wheel since the beginning of the Falcon 9 program,” she said. “We were comfortable with it for our commercial launches, the [Commercial Resupply Services] program was comfortable with it as well.”

However, she confirmed that the company was working to eliminate the checks in engines that will be used on commercial crew missions. “The redesign has been in work for quite some time, and the final spin on that engine design we’ll fly this year,” she said.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk made similar comments. “Provided Dragon 2 demo missions go well, SpaceX is highly confident of being able to fly US astronauts in 2018,” he tweeted early Feb. 18. Dragon 2 is an alternative name for Crew Dragon.

“They are often right,” he tweeted later when asked why he disagreed with the GAO’s report, “but, in this case, we have already retired so much R&D risk on Dragon 2, that I feel very confident of 2018.”

Boeing officials, speaking at a media event Feb. 17 at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility here used to assemble its CST-100 spacecraft, also expressed optimism that they would be ready to fly astronauts in 2018.

“There is risk in the schedule, but we’ve also put margin in the schedule,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing. He said the company is focused on qualifying all the components that will be used on the spacecraft and build an initial series of vehicles for upcoming tests.

“We just have to fight through getting past component qualification and getting these initial test articles built and powered on,” he said. “Once we get through that, our risk goes down significantly.”

A structural test article of the CST-100 was shipped late last year to a Boeing facility in Huntington Beach, California, for an extended series of tests. Three other spacecraft are in various stages of assembly. One of them is being built for a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in early 2018.

Two other spacecraft will be built for flight tests. One, designated Spacecraft 2, will first undergo environmental testing at another Boeing facility in El Segundo, California, then return to Florida to be refurbished for a crewed flight test in August 2018. The other, Spacecraft 3, will be built starting this spring for an uncrewed flight test in June 2018.

Mulholland said Boeing has made progress on other issues that previously delayed the schedule of test flights. The company closed two issues, involving aerodynamic loads the capsule placed on its Atlas 5 launch vehicle during flight and “ignition overpressure” loads on the spacecraft during a launch abort, in January. He also said the spacecraft did not have a problem with mass growth, although engineers continued to look for areas to reduce spacecraft mass to increase its payload.

“There’s always going to be pressures on the development schedule and risks that we carry,” he said. “We’ve got things in place today as we deal with the risks that are going to be ahead of us six to nine months from now, and taking proactive steps to try and mitigate them.”