In a report issued before the accident that destroyed a SpaceX Falcon 9 and its Israeli communications satellite payload, and trashed a launch pad, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) concluded that the first commercial crew flights would be delayed until at least late 2018. Both the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon are facing significant technical challenges that have to be overcome before the two spacecraft can fly crews to and from the International Space Station, according to Space News.

Previous development delays could be ascribed to funding shortfalls. In this case, the delays are the result of the technical challenges that just about every space system is beset with during its development phase.

Boeing is encountering problems in the mass growth of its spacecraft as well as “aeroacoustical loads” that would be inflicted on the Atlas V rocket during launch. SpaceX is experiencing a significant design change from a vehicle that lands on land to one that splashes down on water, much like the old Apollo spacecraft did.

It is also having trouble with a number of subsystems, including the parachutes and a tunnel that allows crews to access the International Space Station.

The report highlights one of the limitations of the commercial model for spaceflight. While commercial entities are undoubtedly more flexible than the bureaucratic bound NASA in developing space systems and therefore can accomplish the task cheaper.

However, the inherent technical challenges of developing new space systems are the same, whether it takes place under the old NASA-centric system or the commercial system. Schedule slippages and even cost overruns are inevitable no matter which approach is used.

Too many commercial space advocates have oversold the commercial model, claiming, to paraphrase an old axiom by Arthur C. Clarke, that any sufficiently commercial process is indistinguishable from magic.

To be sure, the commercial model is the soundest approach to pursue in the long run since it should provide cost savings once new space systems become operational because of market competition. But problems, whether the ones uncovered by NASA’s OIG, or whatever caused the recent SpaceX Falcon 9, are inevitable and need to be worked through without resort to hype or magical thinking.  

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