NASA commercial crew program for space station faces delays, report says

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The Associated Press says the US has paid Moscow up to $82 million a seat for the ride into orbit. "NASA needs to develop a backup plan for ensuring a United States presence on the International Space Station and clarify how it will determine its risk tolerance for loss of crew", the agency said in a statement late on Wednesday.

NASA needs a backup plan for getting astronauts to space, given additional delays on the horizon for new commercial crew capsules, the US Government Accountability Office recommended Wednesday.

The GAO said it is tracking potential safety risks on the private companies' crew capsules, including a Boeing Starliner abort system meant to eject the capsule from a hazardous rocket explosion, and a since-upgraded fuel valve on SpaceX's Falcon rocket that triggered a costly 2016 launchpad explosion.

Both companies have been shooting for test flights by the end of this year. However, the 47-page report highlighted further delays despite ongoing progress.

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NASA ended the U.S. space shuttle program in 2011 and has relied on Russian rockets since then to carry USA astronauts to the space station.

SpaceX and Boeing Co are the two main contractors selected under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's commercial crew program to send USA astronauts to space as soon as 2019, using their Dragon and Starliner spacecraft respectively. The GAO notes that the contract with Russian Federation is set to end in late 2019.

NASA's human explorations chief, William Gerstenmaier, said the space agency is actively working on options to keep Americans living and working, uninterrupted, at the station. He also noted that while the different documentation for measuring crew risk can be confusing, it is up to NASA's commercial crew program to assure the proper safety guidelines. Pictured here is the SpaceX Dragon cargo craft, a human-rated version of which is being developed to bring astronauts to space.

In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing respectively received $2.6 billion and $4.2 billion contracts to build crew transportation systems under the commercial crew program, NASA's flagship campaign to use the private sector for ISS missions. The agreement called for the spacecraft to be certified by 2017. The latter is already delivering cargo to the orbiting space laboratory, which now has three Americans, one German, and two Russians astronauts.

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