back to article NASA told to get act together on commercial crew vendors as chance of US-free ISS rises

Auditors minced no words in their assessment (PDF) of NASA's Commercial Crew providers: overdue, overbudget and overpaid. This was not supposed to have happened. SpaceX and Boeing should have been flying crew to the International Space Station by now thanks to fixed-price contracts. Or not so fixed, as the inspectors observed …

  1. Jonjonz

    The Folly of the Free Market When you Really Want to Just Get Something Done

    The Folly of the Free Market When you Really Want to Just Get Something Done.

    It's just so much more profitable to spin your wheels, than actually get what's wanted done.

    1. EBG

      as opposed to

      NASA. Whose shuttle programme eventually left the US without a manned launch capability

      1. tttito

        Re: as opposed to

        in 1985 I read a Soviet article translated in a Cuban zine. It argued that the Shuttle program was a technological marvel, but strategically flawed. Hah, I thought, those envious commies! They have no idea. Well ... .

        1. phuzz Silver badge
          Flame

          Re: as opposed to

          It's said that this was part of the reason for the Soviet copy of the Shuttle (Buran) being so similar to the US version.

          Soviet rocket scientists looked at the design, and just couldn't work out why the Americans would make such strange decisions, like adding the enormous wings when much smaller ones (like on the X-37B, or the HL-20) would have worked as well, and allowed it to carry more payload with less risk.

          The Soviet leadership over-ruled them, and said that the Americans must have some secret reason for using this design, and so the Soviet Union must have an identical Shuttle! The idea that it was the end result of an awkward botched compromise was clearly capitalist misinformation and should be ignored.

          Buran was still bloody cool though, and it's a shame it only made one (unmanned) test flight.

    2. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: The Folly of the Free Market When you Really Want to Just Get Something Done

      Perhaps NASA should have been willing to shell out more money initially, in order to attract more contract providers...

      SOCIALISM isn't fixing this, by the way... (doing it THAT way would wheel spin us in "development" of "the next system" which would be a moving target and a cash pit at many times the current cost, as history would indicate)

      However I think this will work out just fine. There are a few snags remaining, they didn't launch a ball of flame with dead astronauts coming back to earth, they've put caution and safety FIRST, and it delayed things. Well, so what. We're *SO* close to having this now, I'm sure it'll work.

      And yeah, I'm in favor of UPPING the budget for NASA, not for the ISS so much, but because NASA dollars spent on rockets and R&D result in jobs, jobs, jobs. It's the *kind* of Keynsian economics that works, because you PAY PEOPLE TO WORK and GET SOMETHING IN RETURN. And technology always improves with these kind of government contracts, and it all pretty much 'trickles down' into the REST of industry, as history demonstrates.

      It's all good. Apollo 1 was a disaster. And a couple of shuttles. But there was a 'stand down' each time, and some re-evaluation, and we fixed it, focused on safety, and moved forward. NASA is doing it right, I think, but more money approved for contracts would help.

  2. To Mars in Man Bras!
    Facepalm

    Spanked?

    Twice today in articles on El Reg I've read of sums of money being "spanked" on projects. FFS learn to write sniggering schoolboy English properly! The correct terminology is SPUNKED, as in "wanked", "jizzed", etc.

    1. PapaD

      Re: Spanked?

      I assume 'Spaffed' would also be acceptable?

      1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Spanked?

        In some cases, "spewed" would probably be appropriate.

        1. Rich 2 Silver badge

          Re: Spanked?

          Or Sercoed ?

          Or BAed?

          I'm sure we could get this list well into the thousand by the end of the week :-)

    2. imanidiot Silver badge

      Re: Spanked?

      Spanked is the 'merican term for the same thing afaik.

      1. danR2

        Re: Spanked?

        The only two instances of "money was spanked" (with an inanimate passive in operation) that I could find were both British, as far as I could tell, "spunked" being much more common.

      2. This post has been deleted by its author

      3. This post has been deleted by its author

  3. STOP_FORTH
    Joke

    Modest proposal time

    If the yanks could just establish a breeding colony of astronauts on the Moon, transfer to the ISS would be almost trivial, gravity well wise.

    1. kventin

      Re: Modest proposal time

      let me get this clear:

      you want to establish a colony on the Moon (colonialism is so 1800s. not cool)

      effectively making the astronauts _immigrants_

      let them breed

      their offspring would be both E.T. (having matured in different planet) and arguably different species

      and then you let them take over the ISS???

      that ain't gonna fly.

      (oh! NASA! i see what you did there)

      1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge
        Coat

        Re: Modest proposal time

        We already did that:

        You = The British

        Moon = USA

        1. kventin

          Re: Modest proposal time

          my point exactly.

          colonies = not cool

          colonials = revolting* all the time

          one blink of eye and you're legal alien all of sudden.

          luckily there's not much up there in the Moon, it's a real wasteland, so they would not be dangerous

          (ha! they could maybe throw rocks ;-) nothing else's up there)

          and btw, that bypass was a real dick move, Jeltz

          *) as in "making revolutions". although seeing their slumped stumped pissed-upon-straw-haired wannabe leader stepping all over his tongue, the other meaning of revolting surely tends to come to mind

          1. Ugotta B. Kiddingme Silver badge
            Mushroom

            Re: Modest proposal time

            "luckily there's not much up there in the Moon, it's a real wasteland, so they would not be dangerous

            (ha! they could maybe throw rocks ;-) nothing else's up there)"

            Well, there's always that former secret Nazi base, presumably mit über-weapons awaiting der launchen coden

            1. iron Silver badge

              Re: Modest proposal time

              Die Startcodes.

              (really, that is the correct German lol)

            2. tttito

              Re: Modest proposal time

              Remember that guy, Werber, a former Nazi war criminal, but a really fine engineer? Since he retired, NASA hasn't been the same.

              1. JazzyFizzles

                Re: Modest proposal time

                Werber - do you mean Wernher von Braun?

            3. bombastic bob Silver badge
              Trollface

              Re: Modest proposal time

              it's 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

              (wait that's a combination that an idiot would use on his luggage!)

              [it's also the combo on my briefcase]

          2. DCFusor Silver badge

            Re: Modest proposal time

            Yeah, Boris is indeed revolting....

            "The moon is a harsh mistress". Rocks work quite well, thanks R Heinlein.

            1. bombastic bob Silver badge
              Devil

              Re: Modest proposal time

              I liked the Heinlein idea of pedal-planes inside atmosphere-filled moon caves, for tourist recreation...

              (one of his short stories, I forget which one)

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Modest proposal time

        "colonialism is so 1800s. not cool"

        1800s? Pah! Colonialism started when the first upright apes left Olduvai Gorge!

        1. phuzz Silver badge
          Headmaster

          Re: Modest proposal time

          And could be said to be ongoing to this day, but certainly up until at least the middle of the 20th century when Britain gave back most of it's colonies.

    2. Mark 85 Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: Modest proposal time

      If the yanks could just establish a breeding colony of astronauts on the Moon, transfer to the ISS would be almost trivial, gravity well wise.

      Nice idea but it wouldn't work. El Presidente would force a giant wall to be built between the Earth and Moon to keep the aliens out.

      1. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

        Re: Modest proposal time

        The wall could be extended all around the Earth, and covered in solar panels. It would be a sphere in a vacuum... not necessarily a Dyson vacuum ;-)

    3. MJB7 Silver badge

      Re: Modest proposal time

      "slumped stumped pissed-upon-straw-haired wannabe leader" - while I am happy to throw all the insults you like at Trump, could we possibly pick ones that don't apply just as much to Boris? (In fact Boris' hair looks more pissed-upon than Trump's.)

  4. imanidiot Silver badge

    Other solution

    Musk is very sensitive to getting set "a challenge". Tell him he get's 10 million dollars and another 6 launches on the contract if he get's the in-flight abort and the Crew Demo 2 flown before the end of February, and give him all the support he needs from NASA and KSC. I'd bet he'd get it done.

    The little Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly incident the Crew Demo One capsule suffered has already been solved (and succesfully tested), as far as I know SpaceX is preparing the hardware for the In-flight abort test as we speak and the capsule and hardware for CD2 are also already at the cape. They can get it done, if it wasn't for these missions not having the "it must be done right now" priority that some people think they should have.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge
      Happy

      Re: Other solution

      Why not save time by combinig the two tests?

      So you do the launch abort test - blow up your Falcon in flight, with the astronauts in the Dragon capsule. Which separates itself off from the exploding rocket. Then - another Falcon, that's you've launched a few minutes later than the first, catches the capsule in mid-flight, mates with it, and takes it off to the ISS as normal.

      What could be more exciting than that?

      Obviously if anyone offers me a seat on that mission, I'll be jumping at it like a shot washing my hair that day...

    2. Brangdon

      Re: Other solution

      These missions do have the "it must be done right now" priority from SpaceX. The problem is that space is hard, and rushing things leads to mistakes. Also NASA being slow with paperwork, and the promised funds weren't actually made available during the early stages.

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: Other solution

      "I'd bet he'd get it done."

      In the private sector, these are known as "expedite fees". It results in hirng a bunch of contractors, creating new shifts, paying people overtime, and paying out expedite fees to THEIR suppliers, etc..

      It'd work!

  5. johnnyblaze

    Milking it..

    Boeing are milking any NASA contracts they get for every penny, even, I believe, slowing down development on purpose just to ensure the next glut of cash to get them 'back on track'. SpaceX could have had Crew Dragon flying already, but as NASA have to answer to taxpayers and congress, everything is mired in red tape and funding issues. NASA themselves are part of the problem though - they insist of a specific set of tests over extended periods, and demand successful results at least a dozen times before certifying any part of the project, which slows things down again. I'm not even going to mention SLS either, which is the most enormous cash sucking pig of all time. SpaceX could launch 10 or more Falcon 9's for ever SLS - if it ever gets off the ground!

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Milking it..

      Boeing are milking any NASA contracts they get for every penny,

      Not just Boeing and not just NASA contracts. They're all just milking the tax dollar trough for all they can get.

    2. Annihilator

      Re: Milking it..

      "NASA themselves are part of the problem though - they insist of a specific set of tests over extended periods, and demand successful results at least a dozen times before certifying any part of the project, which slows things down again"

      I know - damn NASA with their health and safety. Morton-Thiokol have a lot to answer for.

  6. Roger Kynaston
    Mushroom

    > There's one strung up from the ceiling in Kennedy Space Center if you're ever passing. A Shuttle, not an astronaut.

    Perhaps they should add a Boeing and SpaceX exec or two to the display as an incentive.

  7. iron Silver badge

    I love how Boeing's solution costs more per seat than buying Soyuz from Roscosmos and that's before you consider the cost of the fully expendable rocket they'll use to launch it.

    1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds

      It isn't really comparable - the idea here is to pay the development costs and then prices will tumble. So the price tag is just the total development cost divided by the seats, when in fact the development cost will eventually be spread over many more flights.

      Well, that's the idea, anyway...

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        >the idea here is to pay the development costs and then prices will tumble

        Because the one thing we have learned with large military contractors is that once you have paid for the development costs the unit costs tumble.

        1. Dave314159ggggdffsdds

          Er, yes, in almost all cases that's true.

    2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Comes with free rocket

      The commercial crew per seat cost includes the rocket and and ground support equipment. NASA have chosen the number seats and launches per year so Boeing and SpaceX can work out how much overhead and non-recurring engineering cost to add to each seat. As NASA wants a new rocket for each launch both service providers have to build the same number of rockets but SpaceX get most of their rockets back and can use them for commercial launches and Starlink.

  8. Pete 2

    No such thing as a free launch

    > NASA wound up having to buy 12 Soyuz seats for "approximately $1bn"

    With the cost of a single SLS shot estimated at $2Bn, getting 12 bums on seats via Soyuz sounds like a bargain.

  9. batfink Silver badge

    You keep using those words "fixed price"

    I do not think those words mean what you think they mean.

    1. phuzz Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: You keep using those words "fixed price"

      It's in the sense of the whole contract being a proper fix up.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You keep using those words "fixed price"

      Well they very much depend on the planning assumptions that have been made and their validity. Not to mention having a tightly defined scope, which I suspect they don't/can't have.

      Rocket science - it's not brain surgery.

  10. Len
    Trollface

    ESA?

    Perhaps it's time ESA commissioned the development of a crew unit to be mounted on top of an Ariane 6. Then NASA could pay the Europeans instead of the Russians for their launch requirements.

  11. Marty McFly
    FAIL

    I don't get the delay....

    Sputnik to boots on the moon in less than 12 years. Have we lost the will to go to space, or simply lost the balls to do the job?

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Re: I don't get the delay....

      Apollo astronauts used a mixture of courage and ignorance of the danger to get to the moon. If they had known then how dangerous their rockets really were - they would probably still have gone but would have used a larger supply of courage.

      Commercial crew has to make do with much less ignorance and hardly any courage. To make up for it, Boeing is now far more skilled at fleecing NASA. Among other things, Musk wanted this project to fund development of retro propulsive landings. As everybody knows it is completely impossible to land a rocket by flying backwards with the engines burning at minimum thrust NASA stomped on that plan and effectively forced him to use parachutes. Musk has this strange concept of proving parachutes (don't) work by tying them to a lump of concrete and throwing them out of a helicopter instead of using the standard formulae for parachute design. This insane choice has caused delays because it turns out reality does not obey the standard formulae for parachute design.

      1. fishman

        Re: I don't get the delay....

        "If they had known then how dangerous their rockets really were"

        Plenty of rockets were blowing up even before anyone got a satellite into orbit. The dangers were well known.......

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: I don't get the delay....

          Plenty of early rockets were going kaboom. But less of that happened as the programs went on - once they'd perfected the technique. So they were blowing up Redstones and Atlas's for fun before they started doing manned launches - but the number of explodey ones did drop noticeably afterwards.

          And they had far fewer explodey problems with Saturn, as I recall. Though I was reading a piece the other day that somebody linked to on here on a piece on Apollo 12, about the Apollo 13 fun and games. Which was talking about all the things that went wrong. So for example they'd used a bunch of fireproofing coatings on their control panels (after Apollo 1) - and these also happened to be waterproof. Which came in amazingly handy after they shut down their spacecraft for most a the trip to the moon and back - such that the control panels were covered in condensation when they went to re-start the command module. And they were lucky that there wasn't a massive short-circuit.

          Also the centre engine cut out a few minutes early - and I think it was Lovell who commented that this might be our glitch for the mission. But according to the after-action report - that engine shouldn't have cut out as the sensor that did it wasn't reporting a problem - and they weren't sure why it did. But it was a damned good job that it happened - because the rocket had started pogoing and the engine had already deformed its own mountings and was getting rather close pushing itself into its own fuel tanks and ripping the entire rocket apart.

    2. Qumefox

      Re: I don't get the delay....

      They didn't have to deal with nearly as litigious a culture back then, or contend with social media witch hunts over every little perceived slight to anyone or a mainstream media actively trying to incite division, drama and scandal in the name of clicks.

    3. Annihilator

      Re: I don't get the delay....

      I'd say the risks were pretty well quantified, but people have trouble associating the probability of risks vs what actually happens. When you look at the Apollo missions as an example, there were 32 astronauts - 3 died (Apollo 1) and 3 almost died (Apollo 13). Neil Armstrong is often mis-quoted when people say they had a 50/50 chance. The full quote is a 50/50 of successfully landing on the moon - he thought there was a 1/10 chance they wouldn't survive - similar to what the overall programme ended up as.

      Similarly the space shuttle. During the Rogers commission it demonstrated that the odds of failure were close to 1/50 to 1/100 (compared to the management view of 1/100,000). Of the 135 missions, 2 ended in disaster - a failure rate within the predicted range.

      Funnily enough Nasa were highly criticised for the Shuttle failures and the lessons learned have put a toll on the size of the quality assurance. To look at it in isolation may lead to criticism of over-complicating it, but managing down to low failure rates is expensive and time consuming with good reason.

      The people that then criticise this approach have little understanding of the human cost that drove the need for it. It's worth noting that the Russian approach to space flight was a lot more gung-ho - they just got lucky (and covered up their failures). Gagaran was strapped into what was basically a cannonball.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Getting a rocket certified for human launch has to be one of the most difficult and time consuming things there is, and they seem to be keeping a special eye on Boeing right now for some strange reason. SpaceX has been launching uncrewed capsules to the station for years now without difficulty, but putting people aboard is a red-tape driven enterprise. They've probably been ready to go with a crewed launch for a long time, so there is effectively no one to blame but the government.

  13. Uncle Ron

    Please !!!

    El Reg: You said, "Auditors minced no words in their assessment of NASA's Commercial Crew providers: overdue, overbudget and overpaid." To my knowledge, the auditors ONLY called out Boeing. Not "Commercial Crew providers." Not SpaceX. Huh? If I'm right, why did you write this?

  14. Ian Johnston

    What exactly does an astronaut on the ISS do which couldn't be done by $50m - $90m worth of robot?

    1. Valeyard

      wank and send tweets

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        There are tweet bots. Apparently there are also wank bots.

  15. F111F
    Boffin

    Faulty Parachute Models

    To be fair, SpaceX's testing revealed that the parachute modeling NASA used for previous missions was, in fact, faulty and had to be re-modeled. SpaceX chose to use newer material (Zylon?) as well to handle the stress of the chute opening sequence. Lessons learned and all that.

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