This could be the first year since 2011 that American astronauts leave for the International Space Station in a spacecraft made in the United States – if all goes well, that is.
Delays have pushed back the first crewed tests of the new capsules being built by Boeing Co. and SpaceX under NASA, the Los Angeles Times reports. In addition, the two companies must also complete separate testing and fix lingering safety concerns before this milestone happens.
Lawmakers have made the message clear that safety is of the utmost importance. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, told the companies and NASA officials that they “cannot afford to cut corners” when it comes to closing the potential gap in accessibility the US has to the space station.
The contract with the Russian space agency to send American astronauts to the ISS ends in 2019, which is the same year NASA is supposed to certify the SpaceX and Boeing spacecrafts for travel.
As of now, the US pays about $70 million to $80 million per seat for American astronauts on the Russian Soyuz craft.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House committee, said,
The taxpayers and Congress have neither infinite budgets nor infinite patience. Contractors should not assume that the taxpayers and Congress will continue to tolerate this.
As of now, both companies and NASA are facing safety concerns, with a congressional leaders grilling them for information on the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule. Also on the table were SpaceX’s previous failed launches.
This commercial crew program marks a shift in NASA’s processes. Previously, the space agency awarded contracts to private companies to build NASA-designed spacecraft. But in this program, NASA is buying a service, meaning commercial companies now have more room for future partnerships and can expand into other space services that were held by the government in the past.
David Barnhart, director of the space engineering research center at USC, said, “I tend to think it’s the future, in that government elements will procure services that are not necessarily research or far-out innovations.”