Press Release

NASA IG Final Report: NASA’s Management of the Commercial Crew Program

By SpaceRef Editor
November 13, 2013
Filed under , ,
NASA IG Final Report: NASA’s Management of the Commercial Crew Program

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin today released a report examining NASA’s efforts to partner with private industry to develop a “commercial crew” capability to transport U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  Since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in July 2011, the United States has lacked a domestic capability to transport crew and – until recently – cargo to the ISS.  Consequently, NASA has been relying on the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) for crew transportation.  Between 2012 and 2017, NASA will pay Roscosmos $1.7 billion to ferry 30 NASA astronauts and international partners to and from the ISS at prices ranging from $47 million to more than $70 million per person.  After 2017, NASA hopes to obtain transportation to the ISS from American spaceflight companies.

NASA is currently working with three companies – The Boeing Company (Boeing), Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), and Sierra Nevada Corporation (Sierra Nevada) – to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities using a combination of funded Space Act Agreements and procurement contracts.  As of August 31, 2013, NASA has spent $1.1 billion on its commercial crew development efforts.  

This OIG audit assessed:  (1) the progress of each commercial partner toward developing a certified crew capability; and (2) the major challenges facing the Program. 

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is currently at a critical stage of development with Boeing, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada expected to complete their spacecraft designs within the next year.  While the partners are responsible for developing the vehicles, they rely heavily on NASA funding.  At the same time, NASA maintains responsibility for ensuring that the partners’ launch systems and spacecraft meet Agency safety and operational requirements.  All three partners achieved a state of maturity approximate to a Preliminary Design Review prior to NASA’s award of the latest round of Space Act Agreements in 2012 and each has set an optimistic schedule for achieving a company-defined Critical Design Review of their systems by mid-2014.[1]  NASA officials said using Space Act Agreements during the current phase of development is beneficial because it allows for sharing of development costs and promotes creativity, innovation, and competition among the partners. 

We found that although NASA’s commercial partners are making steady progress in initial development of their spaceflight systems, NASA faces several obstacles that may prevent it from meeting its goal of transporting astronauts to the ISS in commercially supplied vehicles by 2017: 

  • unstable funding;
  • alignment of cost estimates with Program schedule;
  • challenges in providing timely requirement and certification guidance to commercial partners; and
  • ongoing coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Air Force.   

Failure to address these challenges in a timely manner could significantly delay the availability of commercial crew transportation services and extend U.S. reliance on Russia for transporting U.S. crew to the ISS.

Specifically, the Commercial Crew Program has received only 38 percent of requested funding for fiscal years 2011 through 2013, bringing the current aggregate budget gap to $1.1 billion when comparing funding requested to funding received.  In addition, although NASA’s Commercial Crew partners have completed their preliminary spacecraft designs, NASA managers have yet to develop a life cycle cost estimate showing the anticipated costs of the program year-by-year throughout its life from preliminary design through the end of operations.  Without this type of detailed cost estimate, it is difficult for NASA to calculate how much funding is required each year given that costs over time can fluctuate significantly. 

In addition, despite a 90day goal for NASA to respond to partner requests for requirement and certification guidance, our review identified a significant number of requests unresolved for more than 120 days.  Cost increases and schedule overruns may result if NASA is unable to provide timely and accurate requirement and certification guidance.

Finally, NASA and the FAA signed a Memorandum of Understanding in June 2012 that addresses coordination of their respective roles; however, the Air Force ranges often used for space launches are not yet fully part of that effort.  Program officials are attempting to formally establish a tri-party safety steering group composed of NASA, the FAA, and the Air Force.  Failure to coordinate effectively with these entities regarding complex range safety, legal, and insurance issues could adversely affect NASA’s efforts to facilitate commercial human space travel.

To address the challenges we identified, we recommended that NASA:  (1) revise guidance, to the extent practical, to ensure that managers of space system development programs in which Space Act Agreements are used provide detailed cost estimates for each year of the program based upon a complete analysis of the program over time before preliminary designs are completed; (2) examine whether more comprehensive cost estimates should be developed by the Commercial Crew Program before completion of the upcoming Critical Design Review; (3) routinely track adherence to the 90-day goal for responding to contractor requests for alternate requirement standards and variances and explore ways to facilitate that process; and (4) formally establish a tri-agency Safety Steering Group with the FAA and Air Force to provide a forum for resolving crew and public safety issues during commercial spaceflight operations.  NASA agreed with each of our recommendations.

1 Each company defined its own requirements for achieving a Preliminary Design Review and Critical Design Review, which were then negotiated with NASA before Space Act Agreements were awarded.  NASA funded Boeing and SpaceX to achieve a Critical Design Review, while Sierra Nevada will not be funded to complete that milestone due to a lack of Program funding.

The full report can be found on the OIG’s website at under “Reading Room” or at the following link: 

Please contact Renee Juhans at (202) 358-1220 if you have questions about this report.

SpaceRef staff editor.