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NASA delays Orion crew module to 2015, three years after original target

In a new report on NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program published this week, the Office of the Inspector General delivered a pointed indictment of the agency’s bureaucratic delays, and confirmed that the project will not reach completion until at least 2018. The source of the problem seems to be in coordination with the corporate partners that are the program’s target, most notably Boeing and SpaceX. Though the aim of this endeavor was to engage the efficiency and power of the free market toward space exploration, it seems to have had little effect on the government’s tendency toward discussion and delay.

Note that this report was produced before Thursday’s explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral. Its thoughts and recommendations, as well as its evaluation of the companies’ looming technical challenges, do not take this event into account.

The core of the issue seems to be shifting requirements, and an arthritic system for safety checks. It seems that the engineers at Boeing and SpaceX have been dealing with moving astronomical goal-posts, as their designs have had to change in response to what they see as shifting priorities late in the game. The report warns that such changes create delays and funding shortfalls as companies have to redesign their technology too far into the development process. The report claims that while slow progress could once be blamed on irregular funding, at this point pure design issues present a much more time consuming problem.

SpaceX-Falcon-9-vertical

Then, there are the safety checks. Any time that a safety concern is found and reported (and when you’re designing a manned spacecraft there will be many of those), a safety review is supposed to come in and assess the situation, and whether the problem has been fixed. NASA’s goal is to complete these reviews in just 8 weeks, allowing the teams to move forward at a reasonable pace, but the report claims actual wait times can reach 6 months or more.

crewdragon_superdracosThis is a problem when your launch schedule says you should be in the air in a year or so; when your safety check process takes major fractions of your overall time limit, you’re going to either miss your target or launch an improperly checked vehicle. NASA has, rightly, opted for the former of these paths, but of course a far preferable solution would be to actually get the project moving at a reasonable pace while keeping safety checks intact. That was the plan all along.

These delays have required NASA to purchase more launch seats to fulfill their ongoing requirements — $490 million, or $82 million a seat for six more seats. And, the worst case scenario: “If the Program experiences additional delays,” says the report, “NASA may need to buy additional seats from Russia to ensure continued US presence on ISS.”

In the end, some blame must be laid at the feet of Boeing and SpaceX for their ongoing engineering troubles, but most of the potential for positive change is at NASA. The report claims the solution to this issue is better oversight, and increased accountability for the workers making the checks. NASA executives agreed to implement a monitor for checks, and said that it would consider how to build better communication — the Inspector General notes that “we believe NASA needs to take additional action.”

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