NASA announced that it has simplified its commercial crew contract with Boeing. Boeing is one of two contractors, which is developing a crew vehicle, which will, later on, be able to bring astronauts to and from the ISS (International Space Station). The change surrounds its initial test flight that includes the alternative to extend the flight (approximately 2 weeks up to 6 months) and possibly adding a third crew staff. In a nutshell, the initial test flight wouldn’t be a trial any longer.
This is not a big surprise. Last January 2019, the GAO published a report, which stated that human flight certification of SpaceX and Boeing rockets would tend to be postponed up ’til the end of 2019. NASA presently has chairs for rocketeers on Russian Soyuz spacecraft by the fall next year.
According to the Associate Administrator & Operations Missions Directorate of NASA William Gerstenmaier, the contract modification will offer NASA with added schedule margin if required. They value Boeing’s eagerness to change its flight to guarantee they have continued access to space for their astronauts.
He also added that the existing commercial crew flight plans offer at least 6 months of margin to start systematic, post-certification crew rotation to the International Space Station. Turning a test flight into an operational mission requires a thorough assessment by the technical community.
For instance, the spacecraft competence to support the added time still requires being assessed. Modifying the contract at present enables Boeing and NASA a chance to modify the duration to balance the mission needs along with crew and vehicle capabilities. This would not be the first scenario NASA has extended the scope of their test flights.
NASA has SpaceX bring cargo on its commercial cargo demo flight to the ISS under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services initiative in 2012 that wasn’t part of the original contract. SpaceX and Boeing consider flying test missions with no crew to the space station this 2018 before the test flights with the crew onboard.
After every test flights of the company, NASA will assess the in-flight performance to confirm the systems and start systematic post-certification crew rotation missions. Meanwhile, the following Soyuz spacecraft is fixed for takeoff April 20 and will have 2-man crew only and under the existing plan, they will be the only people onboard the station for at least 2 months this summer.