Astronauts Won’t Go To Space Until At Least 2021, NASA Inspector General Says

August 26, 2013 - 2:20 PM
NASA Dream Chaser

This image provided by NASA shows a Sikorsky S-64 Sky Crane helicopter lifting Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser test spacecraft into the air for a captive carry test at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, in California. (AP Photo/NASA, Ken Ulbrich)

(CNSNews.com) – Lack of money and testing delays mean NASA will not be able to send astronauts into orbit until at least 2021, according to a report released Aug. 15 by the NASA Office of Inspector General.

“NASA plans to delay delivery of several systems required to ‘human rate’ the Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), and as a result, the Agency does not expect the spacecraft to be available for crewed operations until at least 2021,” said Paul K. Martin, NASA’s inspector general.

Under current funding levels, astronauts will be limited to orbital missions, because the systems necessary for surface exploration have not been developed, NASA said.

Given the amount of time and money necessary to develop these systems, it is unlikely that NASA will be able to conduct surface exploration missions until the late 2020s at the earliest, NASA said.

The Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle is being developed as a result of the “NASA Authorization Act of 2010.”

The Act set the goal of achieving full operational capacity for the MPCV, not later than Dec. 21, 2016.

The report said the lack of funding is forcing managers to complete the most immediate tests, while development and testing has been delayed on other important but less time-sensitive aspects of the program.

The report said the MPCV Program received $1.2 billion each year for FY 2011 through FY 2013. According to the President’s FY 2014 Budget request, MPCV Program Managers expect their budget to be “flatlined” at $1 billion per year through at least 2018. Because of inflation, this funding represents a reduction in purchasing power, the report said.

Among some of the findings of the report:

The Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) needs to weigh 73, 500 pounds or less at lift off to meet specifications and safety requirements. Program officials say the latest test on the system have the total weight of the crewed mission at 78, 944 pounds. Program officials said the vehicle is more than seven percent overweight.

Because of lack of funding, some tests have either been eliminated or combined, MPCV officials said. 

Eliminating or reducing the amount of planned testing increases a risk that a program will not be able to achieve its goals, NASA officials said. Program officials said lack of testing increases technical risks to development of the spacecraft’s Environmental Control and Life Support System.

MPCV officials said a material known as “Avcoat” is applied to the capsule’s heat shield as a protective barrier during re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The officials said the material has shown tendencies to crack under atmospheric conditions similar to those the capsule will experience during the mission into the deep space environment.

Because of funding and testing delays, the heat shield may not be completed and delivered to begin MPCV assembly, testing, and launch operations in time for the first flight test, NASA said.

NASA said problems with computer systems that manage engineering data and drawings have caused design engineers to have three- to five-hour delays per day when performing routine operations.

The report said testing delays could result in schedule operations and end up costing the program more money at future dates. Test dates have been pushed back four years on one system and nine months on another, NASA said.

NASA also said many of the life support systems required for crew missions have not been developed.

The report did not criticize NASA managers, saying they are doing the best they can under budget constraints. It also did not make any recommendations for correcting the problems, but did say that NASA officials have directed managers to be “as transparent as possible when discussing issues facing the program.”

“We believe it is vital that Congress and the public recognize that incremental spacecraft development is not an optimal way to sustain a human space program,” NASA’s inspector general wrote in the report.

“[D]elaying critical development tasks in complex spaceflight development programs increases the risk of cost and schedule problems and causes the development of critical technologies to be deferred to later program phrases when integration may be more difficult or the costs of material and labor greater.”

However, private sector efforts to return to space appear to be making much more progress.

Virgin Galatic, the world’s first commercial spaceline owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s aaber Investments PJS completed its first rocket-powered flight of its space-vehicle, “SpaceShipTwo (SS2), reaching supersonic speeds, on April 29 in the Mojave Desert in California.

Virgin Galatic said it is now working with the ship’s manufacturer to achieve full-space flight, which the company anticipates will take place before the end of 2013.