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NASA Might Be Unable To Send Astronauts To The ISS In 2020

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Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

NASA

A report from an independent government agency in the US yesterday suggests that NASA may lose access to the International Space Station (ISS) for a brief period of time, while it waits for new spacecraft to start flying.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), delays to upcoming spacecraft from Boeing and SpaceX – Starliner and Crew Dragon respectively – risk leaving NASA in the lurch. Both companies were supposed to fly crews by 2016 as part of the Commercial Crew Program, but that’s now been pushed back to 2019 at the earliest.

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That poses a problem, because NASA’s current contract with Russia to transport astronauts on the Soyuz spacecraft expires in November 2019. If SpaceX and Boeing aren’t ready before then, there will be no way for NASA astronauts to get to the station.

“Additional delays could result in a gap in US access to the space station,” the GAO said in its report.

Artist's impression of the CST-100 Starliner. Boeing

The issue stems around certifying that both of the new spacecraft can carry humans. Both must meet a certification milestone to prove they are safe enough, but the GAO said the predicted dates of completion for these were December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX.

To be rated safe to fly, both vehicles need a 1 in 270 chance of failure on each launch (an improvement on the Space Shuttle’s 1 in 90, notes Quartz). Some say that target is impossible, however, with a 1 in 150 risk of losing a crew member more likely. The actual measurement of this is debatable.

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If the spacecraft aren’t ready in time, then the report notes buying additional Soyuz seats is unlikely. These are typically allocated about three years in advance, so NASA could only now purchase seats for 2021.

The Crew Dragon has been undergoing testing. SpaceX

But there are options. One is to change the schedule to return the last NASA astronauts on a Soyuz capsule in January 2020, rather than November 2019, meaning they’d spend an extra two months in space. The other option is to use the initial crewed test flights of Crew Dragon and Starliner – intended as just short jaunts into orbit – as fully fledged missions to the ISS, essentially skipping a key testing phase.

One of the major requirements of NASA is to maintain access to space, something that’s been tricky since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011 with no successor ready. Any loss of access to space, be it a year or less, would probably not go down too well in Congress.

“Without a viable contingency plan, NASA puts at risk achievement of the US goal and objective for the ISS,” said the report.

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NASA said it would look into contingency plans, but care will need to be taken to avoid rushing at the expense of safety. Any loss of crew would be disastrous, and likely set US launches back even further.


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