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By Andy Pasztor
The two companies building commercial crew vehicles for NASA have a "zero percent chance" of meeting current deadlines to start regular flights ferrying U.S. astronauts into orbit, according to the latest update from congressional watchdogs
Released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office, the report highlights continuing schedule slips - and lack of a reliable revised timeline - for certification of so-called space taxis separately under development by Boeing Co. and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
Instead of the current official early 2019 date, the report concludes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration may have to wait roughly an extra year, and potentially many months longer, before having dependable crew transportation to the international space station.
The capsules already are years late, and both contractors have been the focus of widespread criticism from lawmakers and industry officials for announcing and then sticking with overly optimistic schedules. Several weeks ago, NASA officials told the GAO and reporters that schedule slips were in the offing without providing specifics.
A NASA spokeswoman said the agency is "working closely with our commercial partners and is preparing for potential schedule adjustments normally experienced during spacecraft development."
In a written response to the report, NASA said it wouldn't fully follow all of the latest GAO recommendations but expects to be "working to ensure that the partners' schedules and NASA's internal assessments are in agreement."
Wednesday's report, however, goes beyond questioning the way NASA develops schedules for the complex program. The GAO, among other things, faults NASA's leadership for failing to keep lawmakers adequately informed about budding delays. And it raises a red flag that further delays could result in a gap in U.S. presence on the orbiting laboratory.
Today, NASA purchases seats on Russian capsules launched by Russian rockets to transport U.S. crews to and from the space station. But those contracts are expected to end in November 2019. The report says that if Boeing and SpaceX, as Mr. Musk's company is called, experience additional schedule slips, NASA "does not have a contingency plan for ensuring uninterrupted U.S. access."
The GAO also determined that agency managers are aware of schedule revisions hammered out by each contractor, but NASA officials "told us they lack confidence in those dates until they are officially communicated" to the government.
The upshot, according to the GAO, is that NASA "is managing a multibillion dollar program without confidence in its schedule information as it approaches several big events," including the first unmanned flight test.
In additional to specific technical challenges affecting crew abort systems, parachutes and rocket fueling safeguards, both companies have been scrambling for months to persuade NASA program managers that the new transportation systems will be more than four times safer than the space shuttle fleet when it was retired in 2011. NASA officials have said they could end up modifying that requirement because it may be too difficult to meet.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 11, 2018 18:33 ET (22:33 GMT)
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