Internally, NASA believes Boeing ahead of SpaceX in commercial crew

One of the biggest rivalries in the modern aerospace industry is between Boeing and SpaceX. Despite their radically different cultures, the aerospace giant and the smaller upstart compete for many different kinds of contracts, and perhaps nowhere has the competition been more keen than for NASA funds.

In 2014, both Boeing and SpaceX received multibillion awards (Boeing asked for, and got, 50 percent more funding for the same task) to finalize development of spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the commercial crew program.

Since then, both companies have been locked in a race to the launchpad, not just to free NASA from its reliance on Russia to reach space but also for the considerable esteem that will accompany becoming the first private company in the world to fly humans into orbit.

A narrow margin

Although both Boeing and SpaceX have established various launch dates—first in 2017, and now slipped to 2018 and 2019—NASA hasn’t publicly tipped its hand on which company is actually ahead in the race. Now, however, a new report from the US Government Accountability Office has provided a window into NASA’s internal thinking on commercial crew launch dates.

The data is several months old, coming from an April 2018 analysis. But it’s insightful all the same. The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019 for Boeing and January, 2020 for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes.

Contingency plan needed

This report was conducted to warn Congress that NASA has no contingency plan for how to keep its astronauts on board the International Space Station after November 2019, when the last Russian Soyuz seat NASA has procured is scheduled to fly home.

“While NASA is working on potential solutions, there is no contingency plan in place to address this potential gap,” the report states. “Without a viable contingency plan, NASA puts at risk achievement of the US goal and objective for the ISS.”

With this report in hand, Congress will probably press NASA to finalize and release such a plan. Previously, NASA has indicated it may turn the first Boeing crewed flight, which would precede the “certification milestone,” into an operational flight and extend its mission to the station. It may also seek to delay the return of that final Soyuz mission from November 2019 for two months into January 2020. Depending on the extent of schedule delays, however, neither of those measures may prove adequate.

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