NASA’s internal watchdogs barked loudly last week at the space agency’s failure to smoothly take over from Russia the transport of astronauts to the International Space Station.
The space station has been dependent on Russian Soyuz space vehicles since NASA mothballed its space shuttle program in 2011.
Dependence on Russia has become an embarrassment since the U.S. started imposing mounting sanctions on trade with Russia in 2014.
NASA had to ask Congress for a waiver of sanctions to continue hitching rides on Russian vehicles to the space station. Embarrassment only grows as the current agreement nears an end without the U.S. having found its own transport back into space.
NASA should “establish realistic timetables,” “correct identified safety-critical technical issues,” and “obtain an extension of the legal waiver to pay Russia for Soyuz seats,” concluded a review by NASA’s Office of Inspector General, issued Nov. 14.
The report noted technical issues that have caused more than a two-year delay in contracts with Boeing and SpaceX, which have “obligated approximately $5.5 billion out of $8.5 billion awarded for this effort.”
There still remain “significant safety and technical challenges with parachutes, propulsion, and launch abort systems,” the report noted and warned NASA not to take any shortcuts. Another of the report’s concluding recommendations was “correct identified safety-critical technical issues before the crewed test flights to ensure sufficient safety margins exist.”
Beside mission delay and safety concerns, NASA’s OIG questioned spending decisions, particularly $287.2 million paid to Boeing after a 13-month delay, during which Boeing argued for more money for work on its Starliner space transporter. “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,” the report said.
“We strongly disagree with the report’s conclusions about CST-100 Starliner pricing and readiness,” said Jim Chilton, vice president and general manager of Boeing Space and Launch. “Each member of the Boeing team has a personal stake in the safety, quality and integrity of what we offer our customers, and since Day One, the Starliner team has approached this program with a commitment to design, develop and launch a vehicle that we and NASA can be proud of.”