Status Report

NASA OIG: NASA’s Management of Crew Transportation to the International Space Station

By SpaceRef Editor
November 14, 2019
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Full report


For more than 20 years, the International Space Station (ISS) has operated as a laboratory, observatory, and factory in low Earth orbit. The ISS is comprised of two connecting segments: the Russian segment is operated by the Roscosmos State Corporation for Space Activities (Roscosmos) and the United States On-Orbit Segment (USOS) is operated by NASA and its international partners at the Canadian Space Agency, European Space Agency, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion annually to operate the ISS, including payments for transportation of crew and cargo. Since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011, the Russian Soyuz vehicle has served as the sole means of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.

In 2010, NASA initiated agreements with U.S. aerospace companies to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities with the goal of providing safe, reliable, and cost-effective transportation to and from the ISS. As of August 2019, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) had obligated approximately $5.5 billion out of $8.5 billion awarded for this effort. However, after 5 years in the current phase of development, the program is several years behind its planned operational date. The two contractors hired by NASA under fixed-price contracts—The Boeing Company (Boeing) and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX)—are working toward their first crewed test flights, but both companies must address a variety of technical and safety issues before NASA certifies them to fly its astronauts. Boeing and SpaceX are each under contract to provide six operational missions for NASA—Boeing using its Starliner spacecraft and an Atlas V launch vehicle, and SpaceX with its Dragon 2 capsule and Falcon 9 rocket—and are expected to provide ISS access for at least 48 astronauts through 2024. However, until Boeing and SpaceX crewed flights begin, the Soyuz vehicle remains NASA’s only flight option.

Given the expense and importance of NASA’s commercial crew transportation program, our audit examined NASA’s plans and progress for transporting astronauts to the ISS. Specifically, we assessed contractor schedule delays and related safety concerns, NASA’s plans for continuity of transportation to the ISS, and NASA’s pricing and timing strategies for missions using contractor vehicles. The audit’s scope included both the CCP and ISS programs with a focus on Boeing, SpaceX, and Soyuz space flight systems. To complete this work, we evaluated flight schedules, contracts, and publicly available pricing information; reviewed technical and safety concerns and internal controls; and interviewed NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX personnel. We also reviewed relevant laws, regulations, policies, and prior audit reports.


Boeing and SpaceX each face significant safety and technical challenges with parachutes, propulsion, and launch abort systems that need to be resolved prior to receiving NASA authorization to transport crew to the ISS. The complexity of these issues has already caused at least a 2-year delay in both contractors’ development, testing, and qualification schedules and may further delay certification of the launch vehicles by an additional year. Consequently, given the amount, magnitude, and unknown nature of the technical challenges remaining with each contractor’s certification activities, CCP will continue to be challenged to establish realistic launch dates. Furthermore, final vehicle certification for both contractors will likely be delayed at least until summer 2020 based on the number of ISS and CCP certification requirements that remain to be verified and validated. In order to optimize development timelines, NASA continues to accept deferrals or changes to components and capabilities originally planned to be demonstrated on each contractor’s uncrewed test flights. Taken together, these factors may elevate the risk of a significant system failure or add further delays to the start of commercial crewed flights to the ISS.

While awaiting the start of commercial crew flights, NASA will likely experience a reduction in the number of USOS crew aboard the ISS from three to one beginning in spring 2020 given schedule delays in the development of Boeing and SpaceX space flight systems coupled with a reduction in the frequency of Soyuz flights. Options for addressing this potential crew reduction are limited but include purchasing additional Soyuz seats and extending the missions of USOS crewmembers. However, these options may not be viable given the 3-year lead time required to manufacture a Soyuz vehicle; expiration of a waiver that permitted NASA to make payments to the Russian government; and astronaut health constraints. A reduction in the number of crew aboard the USOS to a single astronaut would limit crew tasks primarily to operations and maintenance, leaving little time for scientific research and technology demonstrations needed to advance NASA’s future human space exploration goals.

In our examination of the CCP contracts, we found that NASA agreed to pay an additional $287.2 million above Boeing’s fixed prices to mitigate a perceived 18-month gap in ISS flights anticipated in 2019 for the company’s third through sixth crewed missions and to ensure the company continued as a second commercial crew provider. For these four missions, NASA essentially paid Boeing higher prices to address a schedule slippage caused by Boeing’s 13-month delay in completing the ISS Design Certification Review milestone and due to Boeing seeking higher prices than those specified in its fixed price contract. In our judgment, the additional compensation was unnecessary given that the risk of a gap between Boeing’s second and third crewed missions was minimal when the Agency conducted its analysis in 2016. Furthermore, any presumed gap in commercial crew flights could have been addressed by the ISS Program’s purchase of additional Soyuz seats. Nonetheless, we acknowledge the benefit of hindsight and appreciate the pressures faced by NASA managers at the time to keep the program on schedule to the extent possible. However, even with that understanding and using CCP’s own schedule analysis, we found NASA could have saved $144 million by paying a premium only for missions three and four to cover the perceived gap while buying missions five and six later at the lower fixed prices. Additionally, NASA started the payment on the third mission 1 year earlier than needed and therefore did not use $43 million of the lead time flexibility purchased. Accordingly, we question $187 million of these price increases as unnecessary costs. Finally, given that NASA’s objective was to address a potential crew transportation gap, we found that SpaceX was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing.


In order to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of CCP, we made five recommendations to NASA’s Acting Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate: (1) revise current schedules and establish realistic timetables for the remaining reviews and flights occurring before final certification and missions to the ISS; (2) correct identified safety-critical technical issues before the crewed test flights to ensure sufficient safety margins exist; (3) initiate internal processes and coordinate with congressional and other stakeholders to obtain an extension of the legal waiver to pay Russia for Soyuz seats; (4) complete a contingency plan for delayed CCP delivery by working with Roscosmos to determine the feasibility, efficiency, or necessity of (a) purchasing a Soyuz seat, (b) extending Soyuz docking times beyond 200 days, and (c) accelerating the launch of future Soyuz missions; and (5) continue to ensure the purchase of future commercial space services complies with government contracting regulations, including (a) adhering to fixed-pricing in contracts, (b) coordinating CCP and ISS Program acquisition plans, (c) utilizing existing contract language to apply equitable adjustments through negotiations for schedule changes, and (d) providing equal opportunities to both contractors to compete for additional capabilities or significant changes in contract scope and pricing tables. We provided a draft of this report to NASA management who concurred with all of our recommendations. We consider management’s comments responsive and the recommendations will be closed upon completion and verification of the proposed corrective actions.

SpaceRef staff editor.