The US’s future in space is largely in the hands of private companies whose work continues to be delayed and filled with uncertainty, a government watchdog testified on Wednesday.
NASA contractors Boeing and SpaceX were supposed to have commercial crew transport systems ready to be certified for launch by 2017, providing the US with its own manned space flight system for this first time since the Space Shuttle program was retired in 2011.
But those time schedules have since shifted. The certification date is now 2019. And that goal won’t likely be reached until next decade, according to the Government Accountability Office.
In a report furnished as testimony on Wednesday before the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, the GAO warned that “uninterrupted access” to the International Space Station (ISS) is in danger due to the contractors’ ongoing schedule overruns.
The delays also “lessen NASA’s return on investment with the contractors,” the oversight agency reported.
SpaceX and Boeing both received multi-billion dollar contracts from NASA in 2014 to build crew transportation systems to shuttle US astronauts to and from the ISS. Boeing garnered a $4.2 billion contract, while SpaceX pulled in $2.6 billion.
Since the inception of the agreement, however, the project has been plagued by contractor tardiness. In twelve quarterly reviews since 2014, “Boeing has reported a delay six times and SpaceX has reported a delay nine times.”
The watchdog concluded that the contractors promises were overly “aggressive” from the beginning, and that “anticipated schedule risks have now materialized.”
Each delay forces NASA to purchase seats on Russian rocket ships in order to send US astronauts to the ISS for routine activities.
GAO warnings about schedule delays in February 2017 prompted NASA to plan ahead and purchase seats aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. Five seats were bought from the Russian Federal Space Agency for $410 million.
GAO’s report on Wednesday stated that “if the Commercial Crew Program experiences additional delays, NASA may need to buy additional seats from Russia to ensure a continued US presence on the ISS.” The agency provided no further recommendations to NASA.