CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - NASA and industry partners on Wednesday touted progress they've made developing private spacecraft that could fly astronauts from Florida to the International Space Station by 2017.
Soon after the briefing at Kennedy Space Center, NASA's independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel released a report confirming progress while identifying several concerns with the agency's Commercial Crew Program.
"The ASAP is pleased to see that progress has been made with the CCP over the last year, but many challenges remain that will require resolution at the earliest possible time," the panel's 2012 annual report said.
NASA has committed about $1.5 billion to develop commercial crew systems since 2010, with most of that awarded last year to The Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX.
Those three companies hope to complete system designs in 2014 and could launch crews on test flights as soon as 2015 or 2016.
Among the safety panel's concerns is the possibility that NASA could ask its commercial partners to fly orbital test flights with their own crews before NASA astronauts board the new vehicles.
The optional tests, the report says, raise questions about who would certify their safety and whether NASA could be seen as "irresponsible in its sponsorship/facilitation or tacit acceptance of a high-risk activity."
NASA has told the panel it has no plan to exercise those flights.
Ed Mango, manager of the Kennedy-based commercial crew program, said Wednesday that the commercial crew program's goal was to develop and certify systems that could fly NASA crews to the space station and also enable commercial flights to other destinations.
As such, the agency wanted companies to say when they would be ready to put their own crews at risk.
"All of us have the same initiative, and it doesn't matter who's sitting on top of the vehicle," he said. "It's a person, and that person needs to fly safely and get home to their families."
Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut heading upgrades of SpaceX's Dragon capsule for crewed flight, said he might not fly the company's initial test flight but would have to be willing to.
"I have to be willing to go, because I'm not strapping somebody else into it if I'm not willing to strap into it myself," he said.
Rob Meyerson, president and program manager at Blue Origin, which received NASA funding earlier in the development program, said he expected there would be many volunteers.
"If I know the people that come to work at commercial space companies, I think there's probably no shortage of people that will want to sign up and fly on any of our vehicles in those early flights," he said.
Still, the safety panel said of the optional flights: "We do not understand the full implication of the optional approach and are concerned that it increases risk."
The report also noted concerns about NASA's non-traditional contracting strategy, which reduces the agencies role in the design of private spacecraft, and how it would go about certifying the vehicles' safety.
But it said a two-phase certification program that begins this month "helps to clear the certification 'fog' and is a significant step forward."
The panel's only issue given a "red" level of concern was NASA's overall budget uncertainty.
It questioned whether NASA would be able to afford to certify at least two commercial systems and said operational flights would not start by 2017 without increases in funding.
The program requested $830 million for 2013 and later years, and this year is expected to receive closer to $500 million.
Mark Sirangelo, vice president and chairman of Sierra Nevada Corp. Space Systems, which is developing the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, said lower budgets would delay schedules, extending U.S. reliance on Russia to reach the station and impact research performed there.
"It might take longer to get there, and that's going to have an effect on the really valuable work that's being done on the station," he said.
By James Dean, Florida Today