The first private spaceflight companies will carry humans to the International Space Station in 2017. Or at least that's what NASA is aiming for. The space agency has already placed orders with Boeing and SpaceX to be ready to carry human cargo by the end of next year.
That deadline might not be realistic, according to a new report from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an organization that makes safety recommendations to NASA.
The report praised NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which funds private companies to develop the rocketry and vehicles needed to ferry astronauts to and from the space station.
However, the report says "there is a high likelihood of delays to the first test flights," and raises some concerns regarding the program's riskiness.
The Commercial Crew Program's "maximum acceptable loss of crew probability" has grown over time. Ideally, no more than one in 270 launches should result in a crew death. Current commercial designs fall short of that requirement, says the report, and the standards are being lowered to one in 200.
Space junk, orbiting the Earth at tens of thousands of miles per hour, is the biggest risk factor. NASA wants Boeing and SpaceX to do a better job at protecting against debris impacts.
No more than one in every 270 launches should result in a crew death.
The ASAP report also says the commercial spacecraft designs have "a lack of design maturity." That's because they're moving forward without going through hazard analyses. These analyses essentially take the spacecraft apart and look at the risks that each component opens up.
The Commercial Crew Program is behind on its hazard reporting, says the paper, which also criticizes the hazard reports that are coming in.
While the hazard reports are now flowing, there is a significant backlog, and their quality and immaturity is putting a huge workload on the NASA Program Office.
Without thorough hazard reporting, ASAP is concerned that it's going to be difficult to identify and fix any serious problems with the commercial spacecraft before it's too late.
Boring as it may seem, Boeing and SpaceX (and any other commercial providers that might happen to pop up) need to get their spacecraft certified by NASA, and they're running behind on that too.
The Program Office has actions in place to complete the necessary documentation submittals and approvals in early 2016. This is, however, behind relative to desired timelines for meeting any 2017 launch dates, and there is a high likelihood of delays to the first test flights.
The most extreme risk for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, in both likelihood and severity, is the threat of budget cuts.
Just like NASA's SLS rocket and Orion capsule, which are designed to take humans to Mars, the Commercial Crew Program may be facing budget and scheduling constraints that will lead to riskier decision-making.
For years, the Commercial Crew Program has gotten less money that it requested to help fund an American return to spaceflight. Such budget pressure could lead NASA "to accept more risk than desirable for crew and mission safety," says the report.
But the tide is about to turn. The 2016 budget finally provides the exact amount that NASA requested for the Commercial Crew Program.
With any luck, being fully funded will help the program to address the concerns raised in the report.
"If properly funded," says the report, "the Program should succeed in providing safe and effective transportation to low-Earth orbit."