ALU

Commercial Crew

Safety panel fears Soyuz failure could exacerbate commercial crew safety concerns

Starliner and Crew Dragon

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Members of an independent NASA safety panel said they were worried that the Oct. 11 Soyuz launch failure could make safety concerns with the agency’s commercial crew program even worse.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), in a previously scheduled meeting at the Johnson Space Center Oct. 11 only hours after the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft suffered a launch vehicle failure and had to make an emergency landing, said the incident only deepened concerns about the ability of Boeing and SpaceX to adhere to their schedules without jeopardizing safety.

“We have not seen the program make decisions detrimental to safety,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, in her opening remarks. “But current projected schedules for uncrewed and crewed test flights for both providers have considerable risk and do not appear achievable.”

“The panel believes that an overconstrained schedule, driven by any real or perceived gap in astronaut transport to the International Space Station and possibly exacerbated by this morning’s events, poses a danger that sound engineering design solutions could be superseded, critical program content could be delayed or deleted, and decisions of ‘good enough to proceed’ could be made on insufficient data,” she argued.

Sanders and other ASAP members said they were skeptical that either Boeing or SpaceX could maintain its current schedules for fielding their commercial crew systems, let alone accelerate them to address a potential gap in ISS access created by the Soyuz failure.

ASAP member Don McErlean outlined several issues that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft needs to overcome, including a lack of a final resolution on the root cause of the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) that led to the pad explosion of a Falcon 9 more than two years ago. That is linked, he added, to the use of “load-and-go” fueling of the rocket that would take place, on commercial crew missions, after astronauts have boarded the spacecraft.

“Ultimately, there has to be the acceptance and certification of a configuration which is judged by both parties to be free of the demonstrated characteristics that caused the failure in question,” he said. “This remains an open technical item that the panel believes has to be firmly resolved before we can certainly proceed to crewed launches.”

He also raised concerns about issues with the Dragon’s parachute system, citing anomalies during testing of the Crew Dragon spacecraft and unspecified problems with cargo versions of the Dragon. “Clearly, one cannot risk crew without there being a complete confidence in the parachute design,” he said.

McErlean pushed back against criticism that it was paperwork, and not technical issues, that was delaying test flights of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. That certification “paperwork,” he argued, is actually in the form of critical technical reviews by NASA of the data provided by the vehicle developers.

“While this may indeed be described as paperwork, it is not bureaucratic, it is not paperwork and, point in fact, it is the essence of the technical certification of the design by NASA, and that does have to be completed before crew flies on these systems,” he said. “It is essentially extremely important and should not be thought of as some sort of bureaucratic time delay.”

Boeing has problems of its own to overcome, ASAP member Christopher Saindon noted, including investigating a problem with the propulsion system in the CST-100 Starliner’s service module first reported in July. That issue, he said, appeared to be a “harmonic resonance across the system” that caused a “waterhammer” effect, prematurely shutting down the engine during a static-fire test. Boeing, he said, is still working to identify the root cause of that failure and the exact source of that resonance.

Saindon said that Boeing was also working on parachute issues of its own discovered during testing in New Mexico. “They’re still working to discover the exact root cause,” he said. “The test is on hold until they do that, and then they have to re-initiate the test program, and it’s not an easy test program.”

A third issue he discussed with “unexpected failures” of pyros used to separate the Starliner’s crew module from its service module prior to reentry. “They’re still working to understand why that occurred,” he said. He added that, despite the pyro problems, the overall separation system appeared to work as desired.

He, too, was skeptical Boeing could resolve its issues and complete its testing on its current schedule. “They do have a pretty significant ‘burn-down curve’ for their validation and verification,” he said, with 40 percent of that work complete. “There’s certainly some concern with maintain a good schedule profile with those considerations.”

Boeing's John Mulholland (left) and SpaceX's Benji Reed discuss their commercial crew development programs Oct. 11 at the ISPCS conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust
Boeing’s John Mulholland (left) and SpaceX’s Benji Reed discuss their commercial crew development programs Oct. 11 at the ISPCS conference in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust

Commercial crew providers respond

During a panel session later in the day at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here, managers of Boeing’s and SpaceX’s commercial crew programs said they were still confident that they could meet their current schedules for testing their vehicles, but would not sacrifice safety for schedule.

The latest schedule, released by NASA Oct. 4, calls for an uncrewed test flight by SpaceX in January, followed by a crewed one in June. Boeing would perform an uncrewed test flight in March and a crewed one in August. That schedule, though, represented a delay of two months for SpaceX, and a roughly similar time frame for Boeing, since the previous schedule released in August.

“You lay out a plan you believe you can achieve,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing’s space exploration unit. He noted the company was 85 percent of the way through the overall test program, but added that still meant a chance of discovery of new issues during that final 15 percent. “If there’s discovery that we have, we’ll address it correctly, and fly as soon as we’re ready.”

“You put together a plan, you expect to follow it, and you do your best to get there,” said Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX. “While we’re all pushing hard to get flying, you also want to want to provide it safely.”

Both Mulholland and Reed said they were making progress addressing some of the technical issues raised by ASAP in its meeting. “We discovered an inherent design susceptibility in the launch abort engine,” Mulholland said of the service module hotfire test problem, one that he said only showed up when the entire system was tested. A “really subtle design change” should resolve the problem, he said.

Reed didn’t go into details about parachute anomalies alluded to at the ASAP meeting. “We’re constantly learning and going through that data and applying that, ensuring that the ultimate parachute system that will fly for crew, as well as for cargo missions, will be safe,” he said.

Neither Mulholland nor Reed suggested that development of their commercial crew vehicle could be accelerated much from their current schedules in response to the Soyuz MS-10 failure, adding they would not cut testing needed to ensure their vehicles’ safety.

“We look at it in terms of, ‘Could I work extra shifts or put extra people on it?’” Mulholland said. “It never crossed our mind to think what could you not do, what scope can you reduce.”

“You have to do the same work. You have to do the right work,” Reed said. “The question is whether there’s a way you can compress that schedule. You don’t look at in terms of cutting out work.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA confirms new delays in commercial crew test flight schedule

Starliner and Crew Dragon

Updated 10 a.m. Eastern Oct. 5.

BREMEN, Germany — A day after a SpaceX executive expressed doubts that his company would be able to carry out its first commercial crew test flight before the end of the year, NASA issued an updated schedule that delayed that mission to 2019.

In an Oct. 4 statement, NASA said the revised date for the uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft was now January 2019. The vehicle could be ready for launch in December, the agency added, but scheduled it for January “to accommodate docking opportunities at the orbiting laboratory.”

The announcement came a day after Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said in a speech at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here that he had doubts that the mission, previously scheduled for November, would launch before the end of the year.

“We’re working hard to get this done this year,” he said. “The hardware might be ready, but we might still have to do some paperwork on the certification side of it. It’s going to be a close call whether we fly this year or not.”

The new schedule also rescheduled the crewed flight test, carrying NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, for June 2019. That launch was scheduled for April in the previous schedule released in August, although SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, in a Sept. 17 presentation, said he expected the mission to fly “hopefully in the second quarter of next year.”

“Having completed a number of additional milestones including substantial training and numerous integrated mission simulations, end-to-end Dragon checkouts at the Cape, complete Falcon 9 vehicle integration review, and installation of the crew access arm at LC-39A, SpaceX is on track for launch readiness in December,” said SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend in a statement to SpaceNews. “We look forward to launching our first demonstration flight of Crew Dragon-one of the safest, most-advanced human spaceflight systems ever built-as part of the Commercial Crew program and working with NASA to identify the specific launch target date soon.”

NASA also revised the schedule for Boeing’s two test flights of its CST-100 Starliner. An uncrewed test flight, originally scheduled for late 2018 or early 2019, is now planned for March 2019. The crewed test flight previously scheduled for mid-2019 is now scheduled for August 2019.

That crewed test flight will carry NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann along with Chris Ferguson, a Boeing test pilot and former NASA astronaut. In an Oct. 2 briefing here, Ferguson, who is also crew and mission operations director for the Starliner program at Boeing, said that earlier schedule is “exactly where we are” but deferred questions on when more precise launch dates would be released.

If the companies maintain the new schedule and successfully carry out their test flights, NASA said it expects to be ready to carry the first operational commercial crew mission in August 2019, with the second to follow in December 2019.

NASA, in its statement about the new schedule, said it would provide more frequent updates on launch schedules as the two companies inch closer to their test flights. Future updates will be released approximately monthly.

“As we get closer to launching human spacecraft from the U.S., we can be more precise in our schedules,” said Phil McAlister, director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, in the statement. “This allows our technical teams to work efficiently toward the most up-to-date schedules, while allowing us to provide regular updates publicly on the progress of our commercial crew partners.”

He acknowledged that those updates could include additional delays. “These are new spacecraft, and the engineering teams have a lot of work to do before the systems will be ready to fly.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

First SpaceX commercial crew test flight could slip to 2019

Crew Dragon docking

BREMEN, Germany — A SpaceX executive said Oct. 3 that the company’s first commercial crew test flight could be delayed until early 2019 because of paperwork issues.

In a speech at the 69th International Astronautical Congress here, Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability for SpaceX, said launching an uncrewed test flight before the end of the year will be a “close call” even though the hardware itself should be ready.

“We’re working hard to get this done this year,” he said. “The hardware might be ready, but we might still have to do some paperwork on the certification side of it. It’s going to be a close call whether we fly this year or not.”

When NASA announced revised commercial crew test flight schedules in early August, SpaceX planned to launch an uncrewed flight of its Crew Dragon vehicle in November, followed by a crewed test flight in April 2019. Those dates represented the latest in a series of delays experienced by both SpaceX and Boeing, the other company with a NASA commercial crew contract, in recent years.

However, during a Sept. 17 presentation about SpaceX’s plans to fly its much larger Big Falcon Rocket on a trip around the moon, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk suggested that the schedule has already slipped again.

“We’re hoping to do a test flight of Dragon 2 in December, and then a crewed flight next year, hopefully in the second quarter of next year,” he said. Company officials declined to comment at the time on that schedule, other than to say that SpaceX is “working closely with NASA to find the right dates.”

The revised Boeing schedule announced in early August called for an uncrewed flight of its CST-100 Starliner late this year or early next year followed by a crewed test flight in the middle of 2019. “That’s exactly where we are,” said Chris Ferguson, crew and mission operations director for the Starliner program at Boeing, during an Oct. 2 briefing here.

He declined, though, to say when Boeing would provide more specific dates for those missions, noting he has been in flight training. NASA announced Aug. 3 that Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut, would be on the crewed Starliner test flight, along with NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Aunapu Mann.

That training, he said later, has included both that related to flying the Starliner spacecraft as well as training related to the International Space Station. The latter is needed should NASA decide to extend the crewed flight test from its original duration of about two weeks to as long as six months, as a contingency in the event further commercial crew delays jeopardize access to the ISS, as NASA’s use of Soyuz seats will end in early 2020.

“The lion’s share of what we’re doing right now is preparing some of the non-perishable training, putting some of that under our belts,” he said. That includes medical and “light ISS systems work” as well as, for Boe and Mann, spacewalk training.

Ferguson said he expects NASA to make a decision on extending the Starliner crewed test flight by next spring. “We’re certainly on track to fly mid-next year if called upon,” he said. “I think NASA would like to make a short-/long-term decision sometime around March of next year on how long we will actually end up staying.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

Commercial crew providers believe they now meet NASA safety requirements

Starliner and Crew Dragon

ORLANDO — Boeing and SpaceX, who have been struggling to meet safety thresholds established by NASA for commercial crew vehicles, now believe their vehicles can meet those requirements as they prepare for test flights scheduled in the next several months.

A key issue in the development of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon has been their ability to meet a “loss-of-crew” requirement — a measure of the probability of death or permanent disability of one or more people on a spacecraft during a mission — of 1 in 270. The companies have faced problems meeting that requirement, significantly more stringent than that of the space shuttle.

“The number one safety-related concern for the program is the current situation with respect to the estimate of loss of crew,” Donald McErlean, a member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said at a meeting of the panel last year. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has also warned in reports that the companies were having problems meeting that loss-of-crew requirement.

However, during a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection.

“Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

She cautioned, though, about using the loss-of-crew figure as the sole figure of merit of the safety of either vehicle. “I sometimes struggle when people say that the loss-of-crew number is the safety number,” she said. “I don’t believe that that’s true.”

Test flight preparations

Those assessments come as test flights for both companies’ vehicles are approaching. Updated schedules released by NASA in early August said that SpaceX planned to perform an uncrewed test flight in November, followed by a crewed flight in April 2019. Boeing would perform its uncrewed test flight late this year or early next year, with a crewed flight in mid-2019.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, though, hinted at a slight delay in his company’s schedule during the Sept. 17 announcement of the company’s plans to fly a Japanese billionaire and a group of artists around the moon on the company’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) under development.

“We’re hoping to do a test flight of Dragon 2 in December, and then a crewed flight next year, hopefully in the second quarter of next year,” he said, calling commercial crew the “top priority” for the company.

Reed declined to comment on any potential slip in that schedule. “We’re working closely with NASA to find the right dates,” he said after the panel. He said during the panel that the Dragon that will fly that initial uncrewed test is in Florida for final integration work, while the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 that will launch it were being tested at the company’s McGregor, Texas, test site. Final certification reviews for that mission, he said, have been scheduled with NASA.

Mulholland said Boeing has three Starliner vehicles in various stages of development, one each for the uncrewed and crewed test flights and a third that will be used for a pad abort test that will take place early next year between the two flights. Construction of the two Atlas 5 rockets by United Launch Alliance for those test flights are also almost complete. The schedule announced in August for the Starliner test flights is unchanged, he said after the panel.

Reusing crew vehicles

The panel discussion also addressed plans by both companies to reuse their crew vehicles. That issue gained attention last month when, at an Aug. 27 meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council, Lueders said SpaceX would use a new vehicle for each of its crewed flights. “Right now, what they proposed was a new vehicle every time for us,” she said then.

At the AIAA panel, Reed said SpaceX still had plans to reuse its Crew Dragon vehicles, as it does now with the cargo version of the spacecraft. “Crew Dragon, just like Cargo Dragon, was designed from the beginning to be a fully reusable vehicle, and it’s certainly still our intent” to reuse them. That includes the vehicle flying the first, uncrewed demo mission, which will be quickly turned around for use on an in-flight abort test that will take place before the crewed flight test.

For the operational commercial crew missions, Reed said SpaceX plans to use new vehicles for each mission initially as it builds up a “stable” of vehicles. The company would then work with NASA on how to certify those vehicles for reuse.

That approach, he said, is similar to the cargo version of Dragon, where SpaceX initially used new vehicles for all its flights but, after discussions with NASA, won approval for reuse of vehicles, which now account for all recent Dragon cargo missions. “That was a very successful approach,” he said. “We’re following the same basic plan.”

Boeing plans to reuse its Starliner crew capsules from the beginning. Mulholland said the company has defined what inspections, tests and vehicle refurbishments will be needed for the capsule between flights, a process he said should take about four months.

That desire to reuse the capsule drove Boeing’s decision to land the spacecraft on land, at one of five selected locations in the western United States, rather than splashing down at sea. “For us, in our baseline, we need to land on land to support capsule reuse,” he said. Starliner does have the ability to splash down in an emergency, but “if we end up aborting and ditching into the ocean, then we wouldn’t reuse that capsule.”

Reed said that, given SpaceX’s experience with cargo Dragons, landing in water was not a major obstacle to reusability. “It is different, for sure,” he said of water landings. “I don’t know if it’s much more difficult, though.”

Non-NASA markets

A key foundation of the commercial crew program is that NASA would not be the only customer for these vehicles, with the companies free to use them for other customers and thus spreading out costs. Both Boeing and SpaceX said they’re optimistic about the non-NASA demand for those vehicles.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity out there,” Reed said, including commercial missions to the ISS and to other destinations in low Earth orbit that have been proposed but yet to be developed. “We see a lot of opportunity out there. We’re working on a number of interesting opportunities with various commercial partners,” he said, not identifying any specific opportunities.

Mulholland said a Boeing marketing team has been “actively engaged” with other countries and entities about potential commercial Starliner flights. However, he said the company is holding off on deals until the Starliners are flying for NASA. “I’ve been hesitant to sign anything, or for the company to sign up, until we actually go fly,” he said.

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA keeps open option of extended commercial crew demo flights

CST-100 Starliner in orbit

WASHINGTON — NASA is continuing to study using commercial crew test flights as space station crew rotation missions, but won’t make a final decision regarding that until next summer.

At a meeting of the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council Aug. 27 at NASA’s Ames Research Center, agency officials said they were keeping the option open of using the crewed test flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to maintain a U.S. presence on the International Space Station, while expressing confidence either or both vehicles will be certified for crew rotation missions by the end of next year.

“If we can bring commercial crew online this year and next year, then we have sufficient margin to overlap with the Soyuz capability,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

NASA’s access to Soyuz seats runs out in January 2020, a few months later than previously planned after NASA and the other ISS partners agreed to stretch out the schedule of Soyuz flights. SpaceX is currently scheduled to perform a crewed flight test in April 2019, followed by Boeing in mid-2019, according to updated schedules announced by NASA in early August.

Those dates have slipped significantly from original plans, raising concerns that the vehicles may not be certified — a milestone that takes place after a successful crewed fight test — until after access to Soyuz seats runs out. NASA announced earlier this year a modification of its contract with Boeing to study turning that flight test into a long-duration mission that could stay at the ISS for up to six months, carrying three astronauts rather than the previously planned two.

When NASA announced assignments for the initial commercial crew flights Aug. 3, it placed three people on the Boeing crewed demonstration flight: NASA astronauts Eric Boe and Nicole Mann and Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut. That assignment of three people, versus two for the SpaceX crewed flight test, appeared to protect the option of using the Boeing flight as a longer duration mission.

Kathy Lueders, NASA commercial crew program manager, said later at the committee meeting that the crew for that mission, including Ferguson, had started training on ISS systems to prepare for the possibility his mission there would be extended. However, she said no decision would be made on it until next summer.

“We’re working with station and we’ll see the progress on where the crewed flight tests are, and then we have the flexibility to be able to make that a longer duration mission if we need to,” she said.

She added that NASA will continue to fly three people on that mission even if it remains a short-duration test flight. That prompted discussion among committee members, who questioned whether the benefit of a third crewmember was worth the risk. “What’s the justification for adding the human risk of a third person on that flight?” one committee member asked. “You don’t need three crewmembers for a short flight.”

Lueders noted that the vehicle would carry four people on later post-certification missions, and that both Boeing and SpaceX worked to address the risks of a crewed flight test by performing uncrewed flight tests first. “The government’s original concept, or minimal requirements, were for our first mission to be a crewed flight test,” she said. “Both providers are flying uncrewed flight tests to mitigate that activity.”

Gerstenmaier said that NASA was also considering a similar contract modification with SpaceX for using its crewed test flight as a long-duration ISS mission. “There’s potentially a contract change also with SpaceX,” he said, but didn’t state if that would involve adding a third person to that mission, after crews had already been assigned.

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA approves “load-and-go” fueling for SpaceX commercial crew launches

Crew Dragon docking

WASHINGTON — NASA announced Aug. 17 that it will allow SpaceX to use a fueling approach for its commercial crew missions that attracted prior scrutiny, pending a final series of tests.

In a statement published late Aug. 17, the agency said that it was allowing SpaceX to move ahead with plans to use what’s colloquially known as “load-and-go,” where the Falcon 9 launch vehicle is filled with liquid oxygen and kerosene propellants after astronauts board the Crew Dragon spacecraft on top of the rocket.

“To make this decision, our teams conducted an extensive review of the SpaceX ground operations, launch vehicle design, escape systems and operational history,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said in the statement. “Safety for our personnel was the driver for this analysis, and the team’s assessment was that this plan presents the least risk.”

SpaceX uses load-and-go for its satellite and cargo Dragon missions currently, starting the fueling process just 35 minutes before liftoff. The company has adopted that approach because it uses “supercooled” propellants that are denser, improving the vehicle’s performance.

That approach, though, attracted scrutiny after the September 2016 explosion of a Falcon 9 on the pad at Cape Canaveral during preparations for a static-fire test prior to the planned launch of the Amos-6 spacecraft. That accident, which destroyed the launch vehicle and satellite, was blamed on the failure of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel in an upper stage propellant tank.

Thomas Stafford, the former astronaut who chairs NASA’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, criticized plans to use load-and-go for crewed missions shortly after that accident. He noted that it was contrary to past NASA human spaceflight programs, where the launch vehicle was fueled first.

Stafford had questioned the approach prior to the pad explosion. “There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally,” he wrote in a December 2015 letter. That letter got renewed attention after the accident, when Stafford said at an October 2016 meeting of the committee that he had yet to receive a response.

NASA noted at the time that it was the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) that was the primary advisor for commercial crew safety, and Stafford’s committee no longer pursued the issue. ASAP, at a May 2018 meeting, concluded after reviewing engineering reports by NASA that load-and-go was a “viable” approach for commercial crew missions.

“It appears that, if all the appropriate steps are taken and it addresses the potential hazards, the risk of launching crew in the load-and-go configuration could be acceptable,” said Patricia Saunders, chair of the panel, during ASAP’s May 17 meeting.

Those comments came a week after SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he was not worried about NASA rejecting SpaceX’s load-and-go approach. “I think that issue has been somewhat overblown,” he said, noting that SpaceX could, if needed, fuel the Falcon 9 before boarding astronauts. “But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, any more than passengers on an aircraft need to wait until the aircraft is full of fuel before boarding.”

NASA noted in its statement, though, that formal certification of load-and-go is pending “additional verification and demonstration activities.” That will include five “crew loading demonstrations” to test the crew loading procedures. Those tests will be carried out prior to the first crewed flight of the vehicle, a demonstration mission carrying two NASA astronauts currently scheduled for April 2019.

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA assigns astronauts to first commercial crew missions

Commercial crew astros

BALTIMORE — NASA announced Aug. 3 the assignment of eight agency astronauts, a mix of veterans and rookies, as well as one company astronaut to fly on the first set of commercial crew missions by Boeing and SpaceX.

In a ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA announced who would fly on the crewed test flights planned for next year of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as well as the first post-certification, or operational, missions by each vehicle.

“For the first time since 2011, we are on the brink of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine at the event attended by several members of Congress and other NASA and industry officials.

The SpaceX crewed test flight, currently scheduled for April 2019, will be flown by NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. Each astronaut flew on two shuttle missions, including Hurley on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. They were two of the four astronauts selected by NASA in July 2015 to be trained to fly commercial crew missions.

The Boeing crewed test flight, planned for mid-2019, will carry three people, including former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, commander of STS-135 and, for the last several years, a Boeing employee working on the Starliner program. He will be joined by Eric Boe, who flew on two shuttle missions and was another astronaut selected for commercial crew training in 2015, and Nicole Aunapu Mann, a member of the astronaut class of 2013 who will be making her first flight.

NASA officials didn’t state why a three-person crew would be flying on the Starliner test flight, but the agency announced an agreement earlier this year with Boeing to study turning that crewed test flight into an operational mission in the event of further commercial crew delays. That would include adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay on the station from two weeks to up to six months.

The first Starliner post-certification mission, yet to be formally scheduled, will fly NASA astronauts Josh Cassada and Sunita Williams. Cassada is a rookie astronaut selected in 2013, while Williams, the fourth astronaut selected for commercial crew training, has spent 322 days in space on two long-duration station missions. The first Crew Dragon post-certification mission will be flown by Victor Glover, another rookie astronaut selected in 2013, and Mike Hopkins, who spent 166 days on one station mission.

Both Crew Dragon and Starliner are designed to carry four astronauts. In a statement, the agency said that additional crew members for those first post-certification missions “will be assigned by NASA’s international partners at a later date.” That will include Canada, Europe and Japan, who have traditionally relied on NASA for ISS transportation. It may also include Russia, as NASA officials have discussed in the past flying Russian cosmonauts on commercial crew vehicles, possibly in exchange for seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

The crew assignments came a day after NASA issued new schedules for the uncrewed and crewed test flights, pushing back the flights by several months from earlier schedules. However, at the announcement companies sounded more confident in those revised schedules.

“Predicting launch dates can make a liar out of every one of us,” acknowledged Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX. “We had our quarterly [review] this week, and for the first time in years, it felt real. It’s real. It’s right here.”

After announcing the crews, Bridenstine engaged in a largely lighthearted question-and-answer session with the selected astronauts, who expressed their delight in being selected and anticipation in flying on these next-generation vehicles.

“It is absolutely like flying the iPhone,” said Behnken in response to a question from Bridenstine. “I look forward, sir, to getting you down there at some point out in Hawthorne [SpaceX’s California headquarters] and maybe you can sit next to us in the cockpit and go through flying the iPhone to dock to space station.”

“So, just to be clear, Bob, I’ve already done that, and I nailed it,” responded Bridenstine, a former naval aviator.

“I think I probably did it better,” Behnken said.

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA confirms delays in Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew flights

Starliner and Crew Dragon

WASHINGTON — NASA released an updated schedule of commercial crew test flights Aug. 2 that confirms Boeing’s revised plans as well as delays for SpaceX’s two demonstration missions.

The agency released the revised schedule with little fanfare ahead of a planned Aug. 3 announcement at the Johnson Space Center of the astronauts that will fly the two companies’ crewed demonstration missions, as well as on the first post-certification, or operational, missions by each company.

Under the new schedule, SpaceX will fly an uncrewed demonstration mission in November 2018, three months later than the previous schedule released by NASA early this year. The crewed demonstration flight, with two astronauts on board, will follow in April 2019, four months later than previously announced.

The revised schedule also confirmed dates provided by Boeing in a call with selected media Aug. 1. That schedule calls for an uncrewed test flight in late 2018 or early 2019, followed by a crewed test flight in mid-2019.

Boeing said it revised its schedule in part because of a problem during a static-fire test of the abort engines for its CST-100 Starliner vehicle in June, when several valves failed to close properly at the end of a 1.5-second test. The company said it has identified the root cause of that incident and will make both operational and technical changes to ensure the valves close properly in the future.

Boeing has also rearranged its test program, pushing back a pad abort test that was scheduled for this summer, before both the uncrewed and crewed test flights, to spring 2019, after the uncrewed flight. That modification is intended to “optimize the program flow,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and commercial crew program manager, noting that the abort system is not needed for the uncrewed flight test.

SpaceX carried out a pad abort test of its Crew Dragon vehicle in May 2015. The spacecraft that will fly the uncrewed flight test arrived in Florida last month after completing thermal vacuum and acoustics tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio.

The NASA statement did not disclose reasons for either company’s delays, and SpaceX did not respond to questions about its revised schedule.

The revised schedule is not surprising given that the space community had widely expected delays of at least several months by both companies. A July 11 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted that NASA’s internal projections offered a “zero percent chance” the companies would be certified for routine ISS missions in early 2019, as official schedules at the time expected.

NASA estimates have predicted even greater delays than what the agency formally announced Aug. 2. In its report, the GAO said NASA’s projected “average” certification date for Boeing was December 2019, and January 2020 for SpaceX, with the potential for both companies to slip well into 2020.

Additional delays would jeopardize NASA’s ability to access the ISS, as its access to seats on Soyuz flights runs out by early 2020. “If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the U.S. policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report argued.

Among the options being considered by NASA is to use the crewed flight test as a crew rotation flight by adding a third astronaut to the mission and extending its stay from two weeks to as long as six months. NASA and Boeing announced earlier this year they were studying it, but Mulholland said Aug. 1 no decision would be made about using the test flight in that fashion until next year.

“The mission profile will be determined by NASA,” he said of the crewed test flight. “The decision on the mission timeline will be determined by NASA most probably some time in 2019.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

Boeing delays Starliner uncrewed test flight after abort engine test problem

CST-100 Starliner launch abort engine

WASHINGTON — Boeing now plans to carry out an uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle late this year or early next year as it addresses a problem found during a recent test of the spacecraft’s abort engines.

That revised schedule will push back a crewed test flight of the vehicle to the middle of 2019, said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program, during a call Aug. 1 with selected members of the media. A recording of the call was later obtained by SpaceNews.

The problem with Starliner’s abort engines took place during a test in June at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, where the engines, integrated to into a spacecraft service module, were being tested in preparation for a pad abort test then scheduled for later in the summer.

“During the startup of that test, all engines responded nominally,” Mulholland said. “At approximately one and a half seconds, we issued shutdown commands to the engines, and several of the abort engine valves failed to fully close.” That caused hypergolic propellant to leak from the engines, but did not damage the test article, he added.

“We are confident we identified the root cause and are implementing corrective actions now,” he said, not specifying what that root cause was. The corrective actions include both “minor design changes” and operational changes, he said, “that we believe will allow those valves to fully close with significant margin in all potential operational scenarios.”

Mulholland didn’t state by how much this specific problem delayed the schedule of test flights. Previous official schedules, publicly released by NASA early this year, called for an uncrewed Starliner test flight in August and a crewed test flight in November, dates that were already in doubt before this problem.

Boeing has also rearranged the schedule of key tests “to optimize the program flow,” he said. Originally the pad abort test was scheduled for this summer, ahead of both the uncrewed and crewed test flights. Now, he said, that pad abort test will take place in the spring of 2019, between the uncrewed and crewed flight tests.

“One of the things that is not required for the uncrewed flight test is the abort capability,” he said, allowing the company to push back the pad abort test until after the uncrewed flight.

Mulholland said he believed the revised schedule was realistic, but acknowledged there could be further delays. “There certainly are potential risks in front of us as we move through the remaining test program,” he said.

The revised schedule comes ahead of a planned Aug. 3 announcement by NASA of the astronauts who will fly on the crewed test flights of both Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, as well as on the first post-certification missions by both vehicles. SpaceX has not released its own updated schedule, but is also facing delays from that previously released NASA schedule that listed an uncrewed flight test in August and a crewed flight test in December.

Mulholland said in the call that other aspects of the Starliner program are going well. A structural test article is nearing the end of a year-long campaign of tests, with a final test series planned for September. The spacecraft that will be used on the crewed flight test is nearly complete and will soon be shipped to a Boeing facility in El Segundo, California, for a “multi-month” series of environmental tests. The uncrewed flight test spacecraft is “well into buildup” and recently powered up for the first time.

The Atlas 5 launch vehicle that will launch the first Starliner is also complete, he said, and ready to ship from United Launch Alliance’s factory in Decatur, Alabama, to Florida. That will be the first Atlas 5 to use a dual-engine Centaur upper stage.

While Boeing plans to use the Atlas 5 for Starliner missions for the foreseeable future, the company is looking at the option of eventually shifting those launches to ULA’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. ULA expects to phase out the Atlas 5 later in the 2020s as the Vulcan enters service and wins certification for launching U.S. government payloads.

“We’re working closely with ULA and we plan to work in parallel with them to ensure that the Vulcan is human-rated,” Mulholland said. “We have a lot of confidence in ULA and their processes, systems and mission assurance focus.”

Mulholland notes that the tower built at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, to support crewed Atlas 5 launches was “augmented” so that it can be more easily modified to be used for the Vulcan rocket, which will require the tower’s height to be increased.

“We also are paying very close attention to other potential providers,” he added, not naming the other vehicles under consideration for launching Starliner. “But as of this moment, we have no definitive plan to move from the Atlas 5 in the near-term.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

Safety panel warns schedule for commercial crew test flights still uncertain

Technical problems could delay the beginning of regular flights by SpaceX's Crew Dragon (left) and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner until at least late 2018. Credit: SpaceX artist's concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — As NASA prepares to announce the astronauts who will fly the first commercial crew missions, an independent safety board is cautioning that it is still too soon to set dates for those flights.

NASA said in a statement last week that it will name the astronauts who will fly the crewed demo flights by Boeing and SpaceX during an event Aug. 3 at the Johnson Space Center. The event will also announce the crews for the first post-certification missions by each company, which will mark the start of routine transportation of astronauts to and from the station by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The NASA statement did not explicitly state if the agency will also update the schedule for those flights. The latest public schedules, released by NASA early this year, call for uncrewed test flights by both companies in August, followed by crewed test flights by Boeing in November and SpaceX in December. However, delays of at least several months are widely expected for both companies’ test flights.

Members of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) appeared to caution against flying at least the crewed demonstration flights in the near future. “We see both continued progress and a large volume of work ahead” for the commercial crew program, said Patricia Sanders, chair of ASAP, at a July 26 meeting at NASA Headquarters. “It should be possible to project a realistic timeframe for at least the uncrewed test flights.”

However, she said that did not extend to the later crewed flights. “Depending on the results of the uncrewed flights as well as the resolution of some outstanding technical issues, firm dates for the crewed flight tests are still uncertain,” she said.

One of the outstanding technical issues is what Boeing called an “anomaly” during a recent hot-fire test of the abort engine system that will be used by Starliner. That anomaly, announced by the company earlier this month, is expected to delay a pad abort test of the vehicle as well as its upcoming demonstration flights, but the company has not said by how much.

“There was an anomaly on that test that we need to better understand in terms of its potential impact on the design and the operations and the schedule,” said ASAP member George Nield at the meeting. “Boeing has asked for some additional time to step back and understand that a little bit better, so we can expect some uncertainty in the near-term schedules.”

SpaceX and NASA are still working two issues with its Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 launch vehicle. One is the redesign of composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium in the propellant tanks on the Falcon 9. SpaceX has redesigned the COPV following an accident nearly two years ago that destroyed a Falcon 9 and its satellite payload prior to a static-fire test.

“There’s still a lot of work to do. They jury’s still out on this,” said ASAP member David West on the COPV redesign. “We look forward to seeing what the result of all this work will mean in terms of a final characterization of the risk and whether or not that risk will be acceptable.” If that risk is not acceptable, he added, further risk mitigation measures, which he didn’t specify, may be needed.

SpaceX has also been addressing an issue with the Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D engine. Examination of some of the first engines found anomalies that were “potentially dangerous, and certainly not desirable,” said ASAP member Donald McErlean. SpaceX and NASA have worked on a test plan to address the problem.

SpaceX and NASA, he said, have come up “two principal courses of action in the short term” to correct the problem and two others that would require more modifications to the engine. “The risk is low enough with the two short-term modifications to use those for powering the uncrewed test,” he said, “and the decision for powering the crewed test would come later.” He didn’t elaborate on those courses of action, but said that the panel was “optimistic those courses of action will result in a satisfactory conclusion.”

Despite the technical issues that could delay those test flights, ASAP members said they saw no evidence of safety being jeopardized. “The ASAP has not seen any evidence of negative safety impacts based on schedule pressure,” Nield said. “I think people are looking for that. They’re aware of the danger there.”

ASAP members praised SpaceX in particular for its attention to safety issues, such as development of software tools for tracking development and production issues. “Their tool set, if used comprehensively and broadly across their culture, are actually very encouraging to us as something that could evolve into an admirable advantage,” ASAP member Susan Helms said. “It looks like things are on a good path.”

“We’re at the point where, after many years of those demo flights being distantly in the future, we’re reaching the point where the program is rapidly approaching the launch of those demos,” said ASAP member Sandy Magnus. “There’s a lot yet to accomplish.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

Boeing’s Starliner launch abort engine suffers problem during testing

WASHINGTON — Boeing confirmed July 21 that there was an “anomaly” during a recent test of the launch abort engines for its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle that could delay a key milestone needed for the vehicle to be able carry astronauts.

The incident happened during a hot-fire test of the engines used by Starliner’s abort system, integrated into a spacecraft service module. The static test, which took place in June at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, was a prelude to a pad abort test of the system planned for later this summer.

“The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration,” the company said in a statement. “During engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak.”

Starliner uses a “pusher” escape system, with four launch abort engines mounted on the service module that can propel the spacecraft away from its Atlas 5 launch vehicle in the event of an emergency on the pad or during ascent. The engines, which use hypergolic propellants and generate 40,000 pounds-force of thrust each, are provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Boeing didn’t elaborate on the nature of the problem, but other sources, including social media postings several days before the official statement, claimed that a hydrazine valve in the propulsion system failed to close properly at the end of the test, causing the propellant to leak. Boeing didn’t issue the statement until after the first published report about the anomaly by Ars Technica.

Aerojet, in an October 2016 release about an earlier set of hot-fire tests of the thruster, touted the use of “innovative” valves in the launch abort engines. Those valves, said company president and chief executive Eileen Drake, “demonstrate precise timing, peak thrust control and steady-state thrust necessary during a mission abort.”

“We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners,” Boeing added in the statement. “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

It’s unclear what effect this testing problem will have on the development schedule for Starliner, including the uncrewed and crewed orbital test flights of the spacecraft. Boeing said in its statement that it did not have any schedule updates for the test program, including for the pad abort test.

Updates on commercial crew test schedules for both Boeing and SpaceX are expected to be released as soon as next week. An Aug. 3 announcement, possibly featuring Vice President Mike Pence, had been planned for the Kennedy Space Center, timed to a previously scheduled Aug. 4 launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft. That announcement may go ahead even though the launch has been rescheduled for Aug. 6.

Even before this latest incident, the launch dates for both companies’ uncrewed and crewed tests were widely expected to slip, perhaps well into 2019. A July 11 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited internal NASA estimates that concluded that the companies would not likely win certification for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station until at least late 2019 or early 2020, and possibly not until late 2020.

The Aug. 3 announcement may include the assignment of NASA astronauts to the two companies’ crewed test flights. Four NASA astronauts have been preparing for those flights since 2015, but for now have been training on both Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

In an interview last September, Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who is now director of Starliner crew and mission systems at Boeing, said he expected those assignments to be made for the crewed Starliner test flight about a year before the actual flight.

Original Link

Boeing’s Starliner launch abort engine suffers problem during testing

WASHINGTON — Boeing confirmed July 21 that there was an “anomaly” during a recent test of the launch abort engines for its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle that could delay a key milestone needed for the vehicle to be able carry astronauts.

The incident happened during a hot-fire test of the engines used by Starliner’s abort system, integrated into a spacecraft service module. The static test, which took place in June at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico, was a prelude to a pad abort test of the system planned for later this summer.

“The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration,” the company said in a statement. “During engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak.”

Starliner uses a “pusher” escape system, with four launch abort engines mounted on the service module that can propel the spacecraft away from its Atlas 5 launch vehicle in the event of an emergency on the pad or during ascent. The engines, which use hypergolic propellants and generate 40,000 pounds-force of thrust each, are provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Boeing didn’t elaborate on the nature of the problem, but other sources, including social media postings several days before the official statement, claimed that a hydrazine valve in the propulsion system failed to close properly at the end of the test, causing the propellant to leak. Boeing didn’t issue the statement until after the first published report about the anomaly by Ars Technica.

Aerojet, in an October 2016 release about an earlier set of hot-fire tests of the thruster, touted the use of “innovative” valves in the launch abort engines. Those valves, said company president and chief executive Eileen Drake, “demonstrate precise timing, peak thrust control and steady-state thrust necessary during a mission abort.”

“We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners,” Boeing added in the statement. “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

It’s unclear what effect this testing problem will have on the development schedule for Starliner, including the uncrewed and crewed orbital test flights of the spacecraft. Boeing said in its statement that it did not have any schedule updates for the test program, including for the pad abort test.

Updates on commercial crew test schedules for both Boeing and SpaceX are expected to be released as soon as next week. An Aug. 3 announcement, possibly featuring Vice President Mike Pence, had been planned for the Kennedy Space Center, timed to a previously scheduled Aug. 4 launch of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe spacecraft. That announcement may go ahead even though the launch has been rescheduled for Aug. 6.

Even before this latest incident, the launch dates for both companies’ uncrewed and crewed tests were widely expected to slip, perhaps well into 2019. A July 11 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office cited internal NASA estimates that concluded that the companies would not likely win certification for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station until at least late 2019 or early 2020, and possibly not until late 2020.

The Aug. 3 announcement may include the assignment of NASA astronauts to the two companies’ crewed test flights. Four NASA astronauts have been preparing for those flights since 2015, but for now have been training on both Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

In an interview last September, Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who is now director of Starliner crew and mission systems at Boeing, said he expected those assignments to be made for the crewed Starliner test flight about a year before the actual flight.

Original Link

Commercial crew delays threaten access to ISS, GAO warns

Certification of both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner (right) and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could slip into 2020, the GAO warned in a new report, raising the risk of a gap in NASA access to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

CINCINNATI — Amid growing concerns about commercial crew delays, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report recommended NASA share more schedule information with Congress and develop contingency plans to maintain access to the International Space Station.

In a July 11 report, the GAO said that Boeing and SpaceX could miss their current schedules for having their commercial crew vehicles certified by NASA by a year or more, creating a gap in access to the station when the agency’s use of Soyuz seats ends late next year.

“Boeing and SpaceX continue to make progress developing a capability to fly to the ISS, but both have continued to experience delays,” the GAO concluded in its report. “Additional delays could also disrupt U.S. access to the ISS.”

Current public schedules call for Boeing and SpaceX to make uncrewed test flights in August, followed by crewed test flights by Boeing in November and SpaceX in December. On that schedule, Boeing would be certified by NASA to transport astronauts to the ISS in January 2019, followed by SpaceX in February.

However, those dates are expected to slip, perhaps significantly, according to NASA’s own schedule risk analysis assessments. “In April 2018, the program’s schedule risk analysis found there was zero percent chance that either contractor would achieve its current proposed certification milestone,” the report stated.

Instead, that analysis predicts the “average” certification date to be December 2019 for Boeing and January 2020 for SpaceX. That’s nearly the reverse of what the GAO reported earlier this year, when it said NASA was projecting an average certification date of December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing.

The report notes, though, that those dates could slip further: NASA’s range of dates for the certification milestone extend into the fall of 2020. That becomes a concern for NASA since the agency’s access to Soyuz seats for transporting astronauts to and from the station ends in late 2019.

The GAO said that NASA needs to develop a contingency plan for continued ISS access should commercial crew certification slip to 2020. “If NASA does not develop options for ensuring access to the ISS in the event of further Commercial Crew delays, it will not be able to ensure that the U.S. policy goal and objective for the ISS will be met,” the report argued.

NASA has offered some approaches to addressing a potential gap, including stretching out the schedule of Soyuz flights to the ISS to extend access to the station until January 2020. NASA also said earlier this year it was considering extending the crewed demonstration flights, allowing them to stay at the station for up to several months to maintain a U.S. presence there.

Other unidentified options are apparently under consideration as well. “However, officials told us that planning for contingencies is difficult given the extensive international negotiations required for some options,” the report noted.

The GAO also chastised NASA for not incorporating updated schedule information and passing that information along. Agency officials last month continued to stick to the schedule announced earlier this year despite widespread expectations that those dates will slip, saying only that revised schedules will be announced soon.

“We found that both contractors have updated schedules that indicate delays are forthcoming for at least one key event, but NASA officials told us they lack confidence in those dates until they are officially communicated to NASA by the contractors,” the report stated. “As a result, NASA is managing a multibillion dollar program without confidence in its schedule information as it approaches several big events, including uncrewed and crewed flight tests.”

GAO also recommended that NASA include its own schedule risk analysis in its quarterly reports to Congress. NASA, though, said in a response that it has no plans to do so, and will instead maintain current practice of using company estimates along with a “qualitative statement” from the agency on those schedules.

“There will not be a requirement for detailed NASA risk assessment,” the agency said in a response signed by three officials, including Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “The partners schedule risk assessment will match NASA’s analysis or NASA will discuss our position as we have in past reports.”

The GAO argued its recommendation was still worth accepting. “We continue to believe the recommendation is valid because the program’s schedule risk analysis would provide Congress with valuable insight into potential delays, which are likely,” it stated in the report. “Without this information, Congress does not know the full extent of potential delays to inform decision making.”

NASA accepted other recommendations in the report, including development of a contingency plan for ISS access if there are further crew delays. That plan will be complete by the end of December, the agency said in its response.

Other recommendations addressed safety issues, including separating the roles of managing commercial crew safety issues and independent oversight of safety so that the same person doesn’t hold both. It also agreed to document lessons learned from the use of the “loss of crew” metric for crew safety.

NASA partially agreed to a final recommendation about documenting its risk tolerance level regarding crew safety, arguing that it did so years ago even if the existence of other documents on risk requirements “can be confusing.”

Original Link

Crew Dragon completes thermal vacuum tests ahead of first test flight

SpaceX has completed tests of its Crew Dragon spacecraft at NASA’s Plum Brook Station, which the company previously said was the last step before shipping the spacecraft to Florida for launch preparations. Credit: SpaceX

CINCINNATI — The first SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft has completed a series of tests at a NASA center that may put the spacecraft one step closer to an uncrewed test flight later this year.

In a speech at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Propulsion and Energy Forum here July 9, Janet Kavandi, director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said the spacecraft recently left the center’s Plum Brook Station after a series of thermal vacuum and acoustics tests.

“They just left yesterday or today,” she said in her remarks at the conference. “They’ve been out there twice, at least, at Plum Brook Station.” She didn’t disclose the outcome of the tests, and SpaceX did not respond to an email requesting comment on the status of the test.

The company previously indicated that the testing at Plum Brook was the last milestone before the spacecraft was shipped to Florida for final testing and integration with its Falcon 9 rocket. “Once complete, Crew Dragon will travel to Kennedy Space Center in Florida ahead of its first flight,” the company said in a June 20 Instagram post about the tests that were ongoing at Plum Brook.

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, also said the Plum Brook tests were the last before the spacecraft is shipped to Florida for launch. “Once it leaves Plum Brook, it’s going to come down to Cape Canaveral for final launch processing,” she said at a June 28 briefing at the Kennedy Space Center about the launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.

That launch will be the first of two test flights of the Crew Dragon vehicle, this one without a crew. NASA schedules released earlier this year, representing the most recent public updates for commercial crew test flights, said that the uncrewed Dragon test flight would take place in August, followed by a crewed test flight in December. SpaceX officials have stuck to that schedule in recent comments.

However, at that same KSC briefing last month, NASA acknowledged some changes in those schedules were likely because of development delays as well as finding slots in the overall visiting vehicle schedule for the ISS.

“We’re evaluating exactly when opportunities might be and when they’ll be ready, but we’re not ready to set an official date at this point in time,” Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said at that June 28 briefing when asked about revised schedules for both Boeing and SpaceX commercial crew test flights. He added that updates would be coming “very soon.”

Original Link

NASA planning revisions to commercial crew test flight schedule

NASA plans to update the schedule for commercial crew test flights taking into account the status of the vehicles as well as other activity at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

RENTON, Wash. — With official dates for commercial crew test flights looming, NASA officials have indicated a revised schedule, taking into account the status of vehicle development as well as International Space Station activities, will soon be released.

At a June 28 briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center regarding the scheduled June 29 launch of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said the agency was “close” to setting new date for uncrewed and crewed test flights by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“We’re evaluating exactly when opportunities might be and when they’ll be ready, but we’re not ready to set an official date at this point in time,” he said, referring to continuing discussions involving the space station program, the commercial crew program and the two companies. “We’re working to that. I think it’s close to when we’ll be able to do it.”

Official schedules, published early this year, call for both Boeing and SpaceX to do uncrewed test flights in August. Boeing is scheduled to perform a crewed test flight in November and SpaceX in December.

A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA's Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceXA SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is prepared for thermal vacuum tests at NASA’s Plum Brook Station. Credit: SpaceX

While NASA continues to state that these dates remain the official schedule, there is widespread skepticism in the space industry that the companies will be able to meet those dates, with an expectation that both companies will see slips of up to several months.

Jessica Jensen, director of Dragon mission management at SpaceX, said at the briefing that SpaceX was continuing to work to the August and December dates for the company’s two test flights. The Crew Dragon vehicle that will go on the uncrewed test flight is currently at NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio for thermal vacuum tests. “Once it leaves Plum Brook, it’s going to come down to Cape Canaveral for final launch processing,” she said.

At a June 26 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee on commercial launch regulatory reform, Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX, offered a similar schedule, saying that the uncrewed test was planned for “later this summer,” followed by a crewed test flight in December.

However, Kelly Gareheime, associate general counsel for United Launch Alliance who also testified at the hearing, declined to state when the company would launch Boeing’s Starliner test flights. “We do have a timeframe that is not public at this time,” she said.

ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno has already indicated that the August launch will be delayed. Asked on Twitter when the next Atlas launch would take place, Bruno responded June 16, “AEHF in October from the Cape.” That suggested the Starliner test flight, which also uses an Atlas, will take place after that military satellite launch, a delay of at least two months.

Shireman said one factor for revising those dates is that the commercial crew test flights have to be worked into the schedule of other visiting vehicles for the station, including Russian Progress and Soyuz spacecraft and Japan’s HTV cargo spacecraft, as well as activities like spacewalks. “It has to fit in amongst all those things,” he said. “We just have to sit down all together, agree when the vehicles are going to be ready, when the certifications are ready and when it fits into the program plan. That’s the work still in front of us.”

Others at NASA, including the agency’s leader, have also been vague about when the commercial crew test flights will take place. “As far as the timelines go, I’m not going to change any timelines right here,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said June 27 at a Washington event held by Politico. “These are commercial providers who set their own timelines, and I’m not going to announce anything on their behalf.”

Bridenstine added he was “confident” in Boeing and SpaceX’s ability to safely fly astronauts, “and we are anxiously anticipating a rapid return of launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”

“Our partners, Boeing and SpaceX, are doing really, really good work,” said Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters, in a June 26 speech at the NewSpace 2018 conference here. He, too, shied away from giving specific dates for upcoming test flights.

“Very soon, within a few number of months, we’re going to have uncrewed test flights for both Boeing and SpaceX to the International Space Station,” he said, adding that flights with astronauts on board would happen soon. “We’re talking about months, and we’re not talking about years.”

At the June 28 press conference, Shireman acknowledged that NASA needed to better explain the process for scheduling commercial crew test flights. “Perhaps the thing we have not done as well about is really explaining all that’s involved in flying a flight to the space station,” he said. “We’re still in negotiations about what those dates will be. They’ll be forthcoming very soon.”

Original Link

ISS crew schedules delay need for commercial crew

NASA will continue to have access to Soyuz seats on ISS missions until early 2020, versus the fall of 2019, giving NASA a little more schedule margin for commercial crew development. Credit: NASA

LOS ANGELES — New International Space Station crew assignments announced by NASA May 24 will give the agency a little additional schedule margin for getting commercial crew vehicles into service as it continues to study backup options.

In a statement, NASA announced it was assigning astronauts Christina Hammock Koch and Andrew Morgan to ISS missions launching in 2019. Koch will launch on a Soyuz mission to the ISS in April 2019 as a member of Expedition 59/60, and Morgan in July 2019 as part of Expedition 60/61.

With a typical crew rotation lasting six months, Koch would likely return to Earth in October 2019 and Morgan in January 2020. This is later than past statements from NASA officials, who said that Soyuz access to the ISS would end with the return of crews in the fall of 2019.

The announcement of the new crews and their launch schedules came after Kirk Shireman, NASA ISS program manager, said May 20 that NASA’s access to Soyuz would run into early 2020, rather than the fall of 2019.

“We do have Soyuz seats though contracts through the end of the calendar year next year, and really on into the first month or so of 2020,” he said at a press conference about the launch of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft, in response to a question on commercial crew planning. “So the first thing that we did is we worked with our Russian colleagues to go extend, to the maximum extent possible, those flights next year.”

NASA has been looking into options for maintaining access to the ISS should neither Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner nor SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft be certified for carrying NASA astronauts when access to the Soyuz ends. One option that agency has previously discussed is using a crewed test flight as an operational mission, adding a third crew member and staying at the station for months rather than weeks. NASA modified its commercial crew contract with Boeing in April to study that option.

Shireman said NASA’s top priority was to get the two commercial crew vehicles certified for ISS missions. However, he said that that NASA was considering alternative, unspecified ways to maintain access, perhaps in cooperation with Russia.

“We’re looking at other options of how we might do it,” he said. “The issue is we don’t want to go pull the trigger on those other options before we know the commercial U.S. providers won’t be ready.”

“Part of it is just working with our Russian colleagues about what options are available and when we would have to make decisions,” he added. “So far, those discussions have been very cooperative with our Russian colleagues. They certainly understand our situation.”

The Russian government-controlled news service Sputnik reported May 19 that Boeing was in negotiations with Energia to purchase an additional Soyuz spacecraft for a 2020 mission to the ISS, carrying two NASA astronauts and a Russian cosmonaut. The report, citing a “space industry source,” said that negotiations for the Soyuz were in progress, with the expectation that the U.S. would pay the entire cost of the spacecraft.

Boeing had previously acquired five Soyuz seats from Energia, including three in 2019, as part of a legal settlement between the two companies regarding the Sea Launch joint venture. NASA then contracted with Boeing for the Soyuz seats.

Boeing spokesman Jerry Drelling said May 22 that there were no plans by the company to acquire a Soyuz for a 2020 mission to the ISS. “As previously announced, Boeing, Energia and NASA negotiated the purchase of Soyuz seats to the International Space Station through 2019,” he said. “We are confident that CST-100 Starliner will be safely flying to ISS in 2020.”

Original Link

Safety panel considers SpaceX “load-and-go” fueling approach viable

The first SpaceX Falcon 9 Block 5 rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A May 11. A NASA safety panel said they felt the company’s “load-and-go” fueling approach could be used on future commercial crew launches. Credit: Craig Vander Galien for SpaceNews

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA safety panel said May 17 they believed that a SpaceX approach for fueling its Falcon 9 rockets known as “load-and-go” could be used for future commercial crew missions.

At the meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) at the Kennedy Space Center, panel member Brent Jett said he expected NASA’s commercial crew program would soon make a decision on the sequence of loading propellants and crew for SpaceX commercial crew missions.

That sequence has been a topic of controversy because of SpaceX’s preference to use an approach called “load-and-go” where astronauts would first board the Crew Dragon spacecraft before the rocket is loaded with RP-1 and liquid oxygen propellants. SpaceX has preferred that approach because of its use of dense supercooled propellants, which need to be loaded on the vehicle shortly before launch.

That approach, though, is contrary to previous practices in NASA human spaceflight, where rockets are fueled prior to allowing astronauts to board the vehicle. Thomas Stafford, a former astronaut who chairs the agency’s International Space Station Advisory Committee, sharply criticized the SpaceX plan after a Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad during preparations for a static-fire test in September 2016.

“There is a unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be on board the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally,” Stafford wrote in a December 2015 letter to NASA released after the pad explosion.

Jett said that ASAP received a report recently from the NASA Engineering and Safety Center than examined the issues with load-and-go, including some “hazard causes” not previously identified. That report “proved very valuable to the commercial crew program,” he said.

“My sense is that, assuming there are adequate, verifiable controls identified and implemented for the credible hazard causes, and those which could potentially result in an emergency situation, or worse, loss of crew and vehicle, it appears that load-and-go is a viable option for the program to consider,” he said.

Other ASAP members offered similar opinions. “It appears that, if all the appropriate steps are taken and it addresses the potential hazards, the risk of launching crew in the load-and-go configuration could be acceptable,” said Patricia Saunders, chair of the panel.

George Nield, another ASAP member and former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, recommended NASA look at overall safety, not just of crews on the spacecraft. “Not only crew safety, but also ground crew safety, is an important factor,” he said. “Where are the risks, and how can they be mitigated, and what is the best overall sequence for safety of the whole?”

In a conference call with reporters May 10, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk downplayed any concerns about load-and-go, saying that he felt that SpaceX could fuel the Falcon 9 either before or after loading crew.

“I think that issue has been somewhat overblown,” he said. “We certainly could load the propellants and then have the astronauts board Dragon. That is certainly something we could do. But I don’t think it’s going to be necessary, any more than passengers on an aircraft need to wait until the aircraft is full of fuel before boarding.”

The load-and-go issue is separate from another issue involving a redesign of the composite-overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium to pressurize the Falcon 9’s propellant tanks. The 2016 Falcon 9 pad explosion was blamed on a flaw in a COPV that allowed solid oxygen to form between the composite overwrap and liner, which triggered an explosion.

“Whether you load the crew first and then propellant, or propellant and then crew, either way the COPV issue has to be resolved,” Jett said. “While some people like to link those two issues, I think really you have to get comfortable with the COPV, then look at the hazards associated with the transient of having the crew on board during fueling.”

“If you can adequately control those hazards,” he added, “there are some very positive aspects to loading the crew first.”

Jett noted that NASA and SpaceX are “laser focused” on developing a safer COPV. “The panel has consistently maintained that understanding the behavior of the COPV in the densified cryo environment and identifying all the potential ignition scenarios is critical to controlling that potential hazard.”

Musk, in the May 10 call, said that SpaceX has a fallback plan if the COPV redesign effort fails, replacing them with Inconel spheres. However, he said that he expected the redesigned COPVs to be approved for use on crewed Falcon 9 flights after considerable effort by the company’s engineers.

“This is by far the most advanced pressure vessel ever developed by humanity. It’s nuts,” he said. “The top engineering minds at SpaceX have agonized over this. We’ve tested the living daylights out of it. We’ve been in deep, deep discussions with NASA about this, and I think we’re in a good situation.”

Original Link

Advisory committee asks NASA to develop plans for reduced ISS crew

NASA’s ISS Advisory Committee is asking the agency to look at options for running the station with a reduced U.S. crew should commercial crew programs experience further delays. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A NASA advisory committee, concerned about delays in the development of commercial crew systems, wants the agency to look at options where the International Space Station is operated with a reduced crew.

At a May 14 meeting of the ISS Advisory Committee, its chairman, Thomas Stafford, said that NASA should consider training Russian cosmonauts on key systems in what’s known as the U.S. Operating Segment (USOS) portion of the ISS, which includes elements from the U.S., Europe, Japan and Canada, in the event extended commercial crew development delays reduce the size of the station’s crew.

“For years, we have observed delays after delays in the development, flight test and qualification milestones in commercial crew, and therefore we believe the current schedule is optimistic,” Stafford said of schedules that call for flight tests of commercial crew vehicles in the latter half of 2018.

His committee recommended that NASA and the other ISS partners should plan for ways to operate the station with a reduced crew if commercial crew vehicles aren’t ready to enter service by the fall of 2019.

“Given these schedule risks, we recommend the partnership pursue plans to protect for a minimum crew capability to ensure ISS viability during the flight development phase,” he said. “NASA’s biggest priority is maintaining the U.S. presence on the ISS in case the commercial crew launch dates slip.”

One option he mentioned at the meeting is “providing training to Russian crewmembers on the USOS critical systems.” That training, he said, would be provided to cosmonauts scheduled to fly to the station on Soyuz missions in September 2019 and March 2020.

Stafford said his committee requested a presentation from NASA on such planning at its next meeting. NASA spokesperson Cheryl Warner confirmed May 15 that NASA has been asked to discuss planning for a reduced U.S. crew presence on the ISS at the committee’s next meeting.

The most recent public schedules for the commercial crew program include uncrewed test flights of Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft in August. Boeing is scheduled to perform a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

However, there is widespread skepticism that the companies will be able to maintain that schedule, with an expectation that the crewed test flights will be delayed until some time in 2019. The U.S. Government Accountability Office warned in January that SpaceX may not be certified by NASA to carry ISS crewmembers until December 2019, with Boeing’s certification potentially as late as February 2020.

That has led to contingency planning by NASA given that its current, and final, agreement with Roscosmos to carry astronauts on Soyuz missions ends in the fall of 2019. NASA announced earlier this year it was considering converting the crewed test flights into ISS crew rotation missions, with the vehicle staying at the ISS for up to several months rather than a few weeks.

NASA announced April 5 a modification of Boeing’s commercial crew contract to study potential changes along those lines, including adding a third crewmember. “This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a statement about the contract modification. That statement noted that current schedules offer about six months of margin for starting regular ISS crew rotation flights on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Stafford’s report at the committee meeting discussed other ISS technical and utilization issues but did not mention the proposal in NASA’s 2019 budget request to end federal funding of the ISS by 2025 as part of its low Earth orbit commercialization initiative. Stafford’s comments at the meeting were based on a joint meeting his committee had with its Russian counterpart in Houston in late January, prior to the release of the budget request in February, and neither he nor other committee members discussed that proposal.

While Stafford raised a number of minor issues with the station, such as a gradual degradation of the station’s solar arrays, he said nothing would prevent the station from operating for at least another decade. “NASA analysis has determined there is no technical need to end ISS before 2028,” he said.

Original Link

NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA studies extending Boeing commercial crew test flight to support ISS

A contract update will allow NASA and Boeing to examine converting a crewed test flight of the company’s CST-100 Starliner into an operational mission should the overall commercial crew program suffer more delays. Credit: Credit: NASA/Boeing

WASHINGTON — A commercial crew contract modification moves NASA one step closer to using a test flight as an operational mission to maintain a presence on the International Space Station.

NASA announced April 5 that it had updated its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract with Boeing to study potential changes to the second of two test flights of the company’s CST-100 Starliner vehicle, currently intended to carry two people on a short-duration mission to the station.

Those changes, NASA said, would involve adding a third crewmember to flight and extending its mission from two weeks to as long as six months, the typical length of an astronaut’s stay on the ISS. The changes would involve training and mission support for that third crewmember and the potential to fly cargo on both that mission and an earlier uncrewed test flight.

NASA said in the statement that adding the third astronaut, and extending the mission’s stay, could “could allow for additional microgravity research, maintenance, and other activities” while at the station. The agency acknowledged, though, that it could also be used to maintain a U.S. presence on the station should the development of both Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicles experience more delays.

“This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in the statement.

Earlier this year Gerstenmaier had suggested that commercial crew test flights could be used as crew rotation missions for the ISS if necessary. “Those test flights might be able to be extended a little bit, fly a little bit longer, maybe fly a little bit of crew, and they could be kind of an operational mission,” he said during a Feb. 8 speech at a Federal Aviation Administration commercial space transportation conference here. “That’s something we’re beginning to discuss with both SpaceX and with Boeing.”

Gerstenmaier said then that the changes envisioned included adding a third crewmember and extending the test flights to bridge any schedule gaps until at least one commercial crew vehicle is certified by NASA for regular flights to the station. He said then that he hoped to reach a decision this summer on whether this approach would work.

NASA has limited options for accessing the ISS after next year. NASA acquired three Soyuz seats from Boeing for flights to the ISS in the spring of 2019, seats that Boeing obtained from Russian company RSC Energia as part of a settlement of a lawsuit between the two companies regarding Sea Launch.

Astronauts flying on those seats would return to Earth in the fall of 2019, at which point NASA would lose access to the ISS unless at least one commercial crew vehicle is online. Gerstenmaier has previously said that buying additional Soyuz seats is not an option given the long lead times required for Soyuz production.

In the statement, NASA said that it was approached by Boeing last year about the contract change. SpaceX’s CCtCap contract is not affected by the change. “If SpaceX submits a proposal for their crewed flight demonstration, the agency will review it through the normal procurement process,” NASA spokesperson Cheryl Warner said April 6.

Gerstenmaier, in the statement, noted that NASA has about six months of schedule margin in current commercial crew development schedules. However, those schedules have slipped considerably in the past, raising concerns that additional delays could jeopardize continued U.S. presence on the ISS.

NASA’s last update on commercial crew test flight schedules, released in January, listed Boeing conducting an uncrewed test flight in August 2018 and a crewed test flight in November. SpaceX’s schedule includes an uncrewed test flight in August and a crewed test flight in December. If companies remained on those schedules and had successful test flights, they would be in line to be certified by NASA for operational missions in early 2019.

Those schedules remain valid, said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, during a March 26 presentation at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. She added, though, that those dates are “constantly under review.”

“We’re continuing to make considerable progress,” she said as she wrapped up reports on the status of Boeing and SpaceX. “I can’t emphasize enough how this next year, year and a half, is going to be critical for us.”

At that meeting, committee chairman and former astronaut Ken Bowersox asked if the current schedules were “aggressive,” and Lueders agreed. “In a perfect schedule, it all could come together,” she said, but added “there are things that can happen along the way.”

“We really want to give them the time to do this right,” she said. “Yes, we want them to do it as fast as possible, but we’re not willing to sacrifice the safety of the crew.”

Original Link

House members question balance of NASA programs in 2019 budget proposal

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifies at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal March 7. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Members of the House space subcommittee raised concerns about elements of NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal during a March 7 hearing, from the cancellation of a space telescope to restructuring of the agency’s technology programs.

At the hearing by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot defended the budget proposal released last month, arguing that it supports human spaceflight efforts as well as science and aeronautics.

“I think we still have a very balanced budget when you look across the multi-mission opportunities in science and aeronautics and technology, along with the exploration activity,” Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do here is focus on a long-term plan with our eye on Mars, ultimately.”

Lightfoot’s comment came in response to a question from ranking member Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who thought the budget proposal focused too much on human exploration efforts. “There are some areas of concern of the overweight focus just on exploration,” he said. “None of us is going to argue that exploration is not important, but we also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the space science, the space technology, the aeronautics and education.”

A particular area of concern for Bera was the plan in the budget proposal to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, the next flagship astrophysics missions at NASA after the James Webb Space Telescope. WFIRST, he noted, was the top priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, where astronomers prioritized mission concepts for the next decade.

“The decadal survey has served us well, and not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can certainty set a dangerous precedent,” Bera said.

Lightfoot tried to downplay the effects of the proposed cancellation on astrophysics research. Asked later in the hearing by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) about the consequences of not flying WFIRST, Lightfoot suggested other missions, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) scheduled to launch in April, could fill in.

“We’re counting on TESS and James Webb to fill the astrophysics needs for quite a bit of time,” he said, but acknowledged there would be a “gap” in data. “To the astrophysics community, that’s a challenge from a scientific perspective.”

Others questioned plans to reorganize NASA’s management of space technology efforts, which would effectively fold the Space Technology Mission Directorate into the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, focusing more technology research on exploration needs.

Details of how that transition will take shape are still being developed in the agency, Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure our technologies that we’re working on are truly aligned with the things we’re trying to do at the moon and ultimately at Mars,” he said.

Some members, though, worried this reorganization would take resources away from space technology activities not associated with exploration, or cut technology funding in general to support operations. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) entered into the record a letter from Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado and a former NASA chief technologist, critical of the proposed reorganization.

Braun, in the letter, called the reorganization “among the most devastating long-term aspects proposed” in the budget request. “Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space.”

Lightfoot defended the change, even while acknowledging that the new exploration research and technology program will focus on “long poles” for human missions to Mars. “I think we still have a very balanced portfolio going forward.”

Human spaceflight issues

Members also asked about the initiative in the budget proposal to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025 while developing commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit. The lack of details about those plans, though, bothered some.

“I remain open to new ideas relative to future operations, but obviously we need a detailed and realistic, sustainable plan for any ISS transition in the future,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee. “NASA will need to do a better job articulating this plan as we move forward.”

Babin also reminded Lightfoot that NASA had yet to deliver both the ISS transition plan and an exploration roadmap required by last year’s NASA authorization bill. Those documents were supposed to be delivered to Congress last December. Lightfoot later said that the exploration roadmap should be delivered by the end of the month.

Other members noted the absence of funding in the budget proposal for a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System. NASA officials said they were considering seeking funding for it last year as a means of closing the gap between the first and second SLS missions caused by required modifications to the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions.

“We took a hard look at that,” Lightfoot said. A second platform, he said, could move up the date of the first crewed Orion mission from 2023 to 2022, but that it’s a “pretty expensive” project. “We had the discussion, we had the debate, and the answer came back we should stick with the plan that we’ve got.”

Babin returned to the issue later in the hearing, noting that Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana had talked about it with him while in Florida for last month’s meeting of the National Space Council. “It sure sounded like it would absolutely be a great thing if we could get a second one,” he said.

Lightfoot said that part of the expense of a second launch platform involved also purchasing and human rating a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and using it with the existing mobile launch platform for a second SLS mission while the new mobile launcher, for the Block 1B versions of SLS, is built. That would allow for a crewed launch sooner than modifying the platform to accommodate the larger SLS.

Lightfoot also confirmed that NASA is studying flying astronauts on commercial crew test flights as a contingency measure should Boeing and SpaceX experience further delays in the development of their vehicles. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said last month that option was being considered since additional Soyuz spacecraft will not be available after the fall of 2019.

“We are looking at several options” for maintaining access to the ISS, Lightfoot said, but didn’t disclose the other options beyond flying crews on test flights. “We’re still confident that our commercial providers are going to provide us the capability we need, and we’re just looking at contingencies in case.”

Original Link

Safety panel warns of “bottleneck” of reviews for exploration and commercial crew vehicles

NASA’s SLS/Orion and commercial crew programs could face slowdowns from a “bottleneck” of simultaneous reviews, a safety panel warned last week. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA safety panel said they see good progress on the development of both exploration systems and commercial crew vehicles, but warn future progress could be hindered by a “bottleneck” of reviews they face.

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), meeting March 1 at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, didn’t note any new major safety-related problems involving the two commercial crew vehicles under development, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, or NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion programs.

However, members raised concerns about the fact that the simultaneous development of the vehicles could strain NASA’s ability to perform qualification and other safety reviews. That had the potential to create additional schedule pressure on those programs.

“There’s going to be a wall of verification and qualification processes which a finite number of people at NASA are going to have to wade through,” said former astronaut Sandra Magnus. She said companies, and NASA, had to be aware of how to deal with that impending wave of reviews. “This is a potential bottleneck that’s coming up.”

Neither Magnus nor other panel members offered specific solutions to the problem, beyond trying to spread out the work where possible. “Anything that the community can do now to sort of meter that work” would help, she said. “But I think that’s really the next thing we’ll have to keep an eye on as a safety panel.”

Other panel members said that they saw no evidence of schedule pressures in general creating safety issues for the vehicles under development. “The commercial crew program has shown us on the panel that, in spite of a very challenging set of circumstances they’re facing right now, they’re doing an excellent job of making decisions,” said George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration.

He acknowledged, though, that the schedules published by the program, which call for both uncrewed and crewed test flights of both companies’ vehicles by the end of this year, may not be realistic. “It’s very challenging to be able to make the dates that are now being worked to,” he said. “But, encouraging to us is that we don’t see any sign of schedule pressure negatively impacting the decisions that are being made.”

Several factors are affecting the schedule for SLS and Orion, including development of the core stage of the SLS, the service module for Orion and software. Donald McErlean, a former engineering fellow at L-3 Communications, noted that NASA’s plans call for the delivery of the core stage of the first SLS to the Stennis Space Center “very late this year” for engine tests. “While that is certainly a schedule challenge,” he said, “it is within the realm of possibility.”

ASAP endorsed a proposal last year to build a second mobile launch platform for SLS, which would shorten the gap between the first and second SLS missions. That gap, of at least 33 months, is driven by the time needed to modify the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions. However, NASA did not request funding for a second mobile launcher in the budget proposal.

“We continue to urge that NASA look for prudent and safe ways to shorten the timeframe between flight operations to mitigate the erosion of launch operations experience,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel.

Original Link

NASA studying commercial crew contingency plans

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule approaching the International Space Station. Crewed test flights by the CST-100 or SpaceX’s Crew Dragon could be turned into crew rotation missions should those vehicles experience certification delays. Credit: NASA/Boeing

WASHINGTON — NASA is beginning to study a contingency option for maintaining access to the International Space Station should commercial crew vehicle development experience delays, one that would turn test flights of those vehicles into operational missions.

Speaking at the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Feb. 8, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said using the planned crewed test flights as crew rotation missions was one option under consideration should neither Boeing nor SpaceX be certified for regular crew rotation missions by the fall of 2019, when NASA’s access to Russian Soyuz spacecraft ends.

“Those test flights might be able to be extended a little bit, fly a little bit longer, maybe fly a little bit of crew, and they could be kind of an operational mission,” he said in response to a question after a luncheon speech at the conference. “That’s something we’re beginning to discuss with both SpaceX and with Boeing.”

In a later interview, Gerstenmaier said those changes would involve extending the length of the crewed test missions, currently planned for two weeks, to bridge whatever schedule gap until at least one company has a NASA-certified vehicle ready for regular missions. A third astronaut could be added to the two-person crew of the test flight as well to support station operations.

Work on that contingency plan is just starting. “We haven’t done anything with the contractors,” he said. “We’re in the process of just beginning discussions with them.” He said the concept will also be reviewed by safety and engineering authorities within the agency.

Gerstenmaier said he hopes to reach a decision by this summer on whether this approach is feasible. “We would know then the details of what’s associated with exercising this option,” he said, such as training test flight crews on ISS operations or contract modifications with Boeing and SpaceX.

Gerstenmaier had previously hinted at work on such contingency plans. In testimony at a Jan. 17 hearing of the House space subcommittee on the commercial crew program, Gerstenmaier said that the agency was “brainstorming ideas to provide additional schedule time” should Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon experience additional delays, but did not elaborate on those ideas at the time.

At the FAA conference and the later interview, he emphasized there was no urgency to pursue those plans. NASA’s access to the ISS through Soyuz seats, including those Boeing acquired from Energia last year as settlement for litigation involving Sea Launch and subsequently sold to NASA, runs through October or November of 2019, when the astronauts who flew to the ISS on Soyuz missions in the spring of 2019 return to Earth.

Latest schedules from NASA on the commercial crew program include a crewed test flight — the final milestone before certification for operational missions — by Boeing in November 2018 and by SpaceX in December 2018. That would allow those vehicles to begin what NASA calls “post-certification missions” to transport astronauts to the ISS in the first half of 2019.

“The current schedules show that we have margin,” Gerstenmaier said in the interview. “We show roughly about six months or more of margin.”

However, the commercial crew program has suffered significant schedule delays. When Boeing and SpaceX won the NASA contracts to develop their vehicles in September 2014, NASA expected to have both companies’ vehicles certified by the end of 2017. That schedule has since been pushed back by more than a year.

At the House hearing in January, Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, said NASA’s own internal estimates expected SpaceX’s certification to slip to December 2019, and Boeing’s to February 2020. “The delays and uncertain final certification dates raise questions about whether the U.S. will have uninterrupted access to the space station beyond 2019,” she said then.

Gerstenmaier said in the interview that planning for a contingency plan was a prudent measure even with the current schedule margin. “There’s nothing that says we have to do this. It looks like there’s still adequate time,” he said. “The way I think of it is just to be prepared for any eventuality. Now’s the time to start thinking what it would be.”

Original Link

GAO warns of further delays in certifying commercial crew vehicles

Analysis by NASA’s commercial crew program expects that the two vehicles under development may not be certified until late 2019 or early 2020, according to the GAO. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — As the two companies developing commercial crew systems reiterated that they were on schedule to carry out test flights later this year, a government analysis of schedules concluded those vehicles may not be certified to carry NASA astronauts until late 2019 or early 2020.

That assessment, delivered by the Government Accountability Office at a Jan. 17 hearing by the House space subcommittee on the commercial crew program, raises the potential of a gap in U.S. access to the International Space Station when the agency’s current agreements for Soyuz seats run out next year.

Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, said in her testimony that despite current schedules, which call for certifying both Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in the first quarter of 2019 after the completion of planned uncrewed and crewed test flights late this year, NASA’s own estimates project that certification to be significantly delayed.

“We found that the program’s own analysis indicates that certification is likely to slip into December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing,” she said. Those certifications are required before the vehicles can begin regular crew rotation flights to and from the International Space Station.

Chaplain said the companies assumed aggressive schedules, in part to motivate their teams working on the vehicles, assumptions NASA does not necessarily accept. “According to NASA, both contractors assumed an efficiency factor in getting to the crewed flight test that the program office does not assume in its schedule,” she said.

Such delays, she noted, are not uncommon in major NASA programs. “But in this case, the delays and uncertain final certification dates raise questions about whether the U.S. will have uninterrupted access to the space station beyond 2019,” she said.

NASA currently has access to the station through the first half of 2019, thanks in part to the purchase of five Soyuz seats from Boeing, which acquired them from RSC Energia as settlement for litigation involving the two companies’ partnership in Sea Launch. Three of those seats are on flights launching in the spring of 2019, returning in the fall.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said NASA was studying potential ways to deal with any certification delays beyond the fall of 2019. That will not involve the production of additional Soyuz spacecraft, he said, since each Soyuz has a production time of about three years.

“We are brainstorming ideas to provide additional schedule time, if needed,” he said, without elaborating. “The ISS program is looking at ways to maximize ISS operations while allowing for some delays in launch dates.”

He emphasized that NASA would not succumb to schedule pressures to make changes that could adversely affect safety. “NASA is aware of the schedule, but not driven by the schedule,” he said.

Patricia Sanders, chair of the agency’s independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, concurred. “Despite the volume of remaining work, the technical challenges and the upcoming end of the Soyuz transportation for U.S. crews, the Panel sees no evidence that the program leadership is making decisions that prioritize schedule over crew safety,” she said.

Despite the assessment from the GAO, representatives of Boeing and SpaceX expressed confidence at the hearing about their latest schedules. Updated versions of the commercial crew flight test schedule, released by NASA Jan. 11, call for an uncrewed CST-100 Starliner flight in August, followed by a crewed mission in November, a timeline unchanged from prior assessments.

“We have high confidence in our plan,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs at Boeing Space Exploration. He said he believed the vehicle would be certified by the spring of 2019.

SpaceX is planning an uncrewed flight of its Crew Dragon in August and a crewed flight in December. SpaceX’s schedule represents a slip of four months from its prior schedule for the two test flights.

Hans Koenigsmann, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said the company had completed most of the technical development of the Crew Dragon vehicle, and was confident the company could meet the latest schedule. However, he, like Mulholland, emphasized safety over schedule.

“Safely and reliably flying commercial crew missions remains the highest priority for SpaceX, and we will launch NASA astronauts only when both we and NASA are ready,” he said.

SpaceX in particular faced tough questions from some committee members, who questioned the company’s ability to safely transport astronauts given the failures of two Falcon 9 launches and uncertainty about the outcome of the company’s latest launch, of a classified payload known as Zuma, Jan. 7.

Koenigsmann reiterated previous company statements that the Falcon 9 performed as planned on the Zuma launch. He also noted that, in the case of the June 2015 launch failure on a Dragon cargo mission to the ISS as well as the pad explosion during preparations for a static-fire test of a Falcon 9 in September 2016, astronauts could have safely escaped using the abort system on a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

Some members expressed concerns about both the safety of commercial crew vehicles and schedule delays, as well as worries that they could result in increased costs for NASA even though the agency’s commercial crew contracts with the two companies are fixed-price.

“With the end of the ISS on the horizon, the clock is ticking on maximizing the return on the taxpayers’ investment,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee. He cited delays in other NASA programs, such as the Space Launch System and Orion, as cause for broader concerns. “NASA and its contractors must restore American confidence in their ability to deliver safe, cost-effective leadership in space.”

However, another senior committee member, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), praised the commercial crew program and called Boeing and SpaceX “two terrific companies” for demonstrating an alternative to traditional government-led approaches to human spaceflight. “This program has saved money. We’ve got different approaches that are now being proven. So it looks like the program is going along as we thought it would, even though there have been glitches.”

Original Link

Safety panel raises concerns about Falcon 9 pressure vessel for commercial crew missions

The annual report of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel raised safety issues about commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — An independent safety panel recommended NASA not certify SpaceX’s commercial crew system until the agency better understands the behavior of pressure vessels linked to a Falcon 9 failure in 2016.

That recommendation was one of the stronger items in the annual report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) released by NASA Jan. 11, which found that NASA was generally managing risk well on its various programs.

The report devoted a section to the composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) used to store helium in the second stage propellant tanks of the Falcon 9. The investigation into the September 2016 pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 while being prepared for a static-fire test concluded that liquid oxygen in the tank got trapped between the COPV overwrap and liner and then ignited through friction or other mechanisms.

SpaceX has since changed its loading processes to avoid exposing the COPVs to similar conditions, but also agreed with NASA to redesign the COPV to reduce the risk for crewed launches. NASA has since started a “rigorous test program” to understand how the redesigned COPV behaves when exposed to liquid oxygen, the report stated.

ASAP argued that completing those tests is essential before NASA can allow its astronauts to launch on the Falcon 9. “In our opinion, adequate understanding of the COPV behavior in cryogenic oxygen is an absolutely essential precursor to potential certification for human space flight,” the report stated, a sentence italicized for emphasis in the report.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test. Credit: USLaunchReport.com videoA SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket explodes during fueling operation in preparation for a static-fire test in September 2016. The accident was later blamed on flaws in COPVs used to store helium in the second stage liquid oxygen tank.
Credit: USLaunchReport.com video

The report added that NASA and SpaceX are working on an alternative design for the pressure vessels that does not involve the use of composite overwrap materials should the ongoing test effort fail. It warned, though, that the alternative design is heavier, which may require redesign of supporting structures within the liquid oxygen tank.

The report raised issues in general about the commercial crew program, including concerns that neither Boeing nor SpaceX, the two companies developing vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station, will meet a requirement of no greater than a 1-in-270 “loss of crew” (LOC) risk of an accident that causes death or serious injury to a crewmember. That includes, the report stated, a risk of no more than 1 in 500 for launch and reentry.

“The Panel has been monitoring the providers’ progress in working toward the LOC requirements, and it appears that neither provider will achieve 1 in 500 for ascent/entry and will be challenged to meet the overall mission requirement of 1 in 200 (without operational mitigations),” the report stated. The “operational mitigations,” such as on-orbit inspection, are intended to ease the overall 1-in-270 requirement.

At a Nov. 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Lisa Colloredo, deputy program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program, said she expected the two companies to meet that requirement or come close to it. “We have a very difficult LOC requirement to meet, and we knew that when we going in,” she said then, noting it was more stringent than the 1-in-90 requirement for the space shuttle at the end of the program.

ASAP, in its report, was skeptical that either company would meet those requirements. “NASA will need to determine if the risk portrayed by the analysis, with its large uncertainties, is acceptable,” it concluded.

The panel expressed fewer concerns about other elements of NASA’s human spaceflight program, including the development of the Space Launch System and Orion crew vehicle and continued operations of the ISS.

The report concurred with NASA’s conclusion reached last year that putting crew on the first SLS mission, Exploration Mission 1, was technically feasible but would add “significant crew safety risk” and additional resources. NASA ultimately decided to keep the EM-1 mission uncrewed.

ASAP also recommended that NASA pursue development of a second mobile launch platform rather than modify the one being completed now. Those modifications are needed to accommodate the larger Block 1B version of the SLS, which will be flown on the second and subsequent SLS missions, but will create a gap of 33 months between the first and second SLS missions regardless of the status of SLS or Orion. NASA officials have said they are considering seeking funding for a second launch platform.

The panel said in its report it was encouraged by NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway (DSG), a crew-tended habitat in cislunar space the agency is considering developing in conjunction with international partners in the 2020s. The Gateway is intended to develop experience in spaceflight beyond Earth orbit in preparation for later human missions to Mars, and can also support human spaceflight activities by the U.S. or other countries in the vicinity of the moon.

“In general, the Panel feels the DSG framework has excellent potential for appropriate risk mitigation related to a journey to Mars and looks forward to the ongoing detailed concept development,” the report stated.

It did, though, warn that any plans for a human return the moon, including a change to national space policy announced by the Trump administration last month, will require additional funding. “If the direction for NASA in cislunar space now includes a mandated return to the Moon’s surface and no additional funds are supplied, it will create inevitable pressures on existing programs to execute safely,” it stated.

Original Link

SpaceX delays commercial crew test flights to latter half of 2018

NASA said the two orbital test flights of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft are now planned for August and December of this year, four months later than previously planned. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has delayed its two commercial crew test flights by four months, according to a new NASA schedule released Jan. 11, raising questions about whether it or Boeing will be able to send astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of the year as previously planned.

The updated schedule, which NASA said represents “the most recent publicly releasable dates” for the two companies, lists an uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft in August 2018, followed by a crewed test flight in December. The previous schedule released by NASA, in October 2017, stated those flights would take place in April and August 2018, respectively.

SpaceX spokesperson Eva Behrend, in a statement to SpaceNews, did not discuss the reasons for the delay. “SpaceX continues to target 2018 for the first demonstration missions with and without crew under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,” she said.

Behrend instead focused on the progress the company has made in the development of its Crew Dragon vehicle. “In 2017, significant progress was made towards the production, qualification and launch of Crew Dragon — one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built — and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”

In a Jan. 4 release, NASA outlined some of the milestones ahead for SpaceX before those test flights. They include “continued, rigorous qualification testing” of both the Merlin engines used on the Falcon 9 as well as the Dragon’s SuperDraco thrusters, tests of the Dragon’s parachutes, post-splashdown recovery tests, and testing of the pressure suits that will be worn by astronauts flying on the Dragon.

At the time of the release, NASA had not disclosed the latest delays, but the list of milestones suggested delays were likely. For example, NASA said that a second round of Dragon parachute system validation tests “will be completed by mid-2018,” which under the previous schedule would have been after the uncrewed test flight.

The Boeing schedule released by NASA is unchanged from the previous version, with an uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner scheduled for August 2018 and a crewed test flight in November. However, in an interview in September 2017, Chris Ferguson, director of Starliner crew and mission systems at Boeing, suggested the crewed test flight could be delayed until early 2019.

At that time, Ferguson said Boeing’s goal was to name the crew of that crewed test flight — one NASA astronaut and one Boeing test pilot — about 12 months before launch, but wanted to wait until the schedule was more certain before doing so. The company has yet to announce that crew.

The Jan. 4 NASA release also listed a number of major upcoming milestones for Boeing’s vehicle, including spacecraft construction and testing, pressure suit tests, abort engine and thruster tests and continued parachute tests.

NASA continues to rely on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to transport astronauts to and from the ISS, but had hoped to shift those duties to commercial vehicles by the end of this year. In October, NASA exercised an option in a contract with Boeing for three additional Soyuz seats on missions in the first half of 2019, which Boeing had obtained as part of a settlement with RSC Energia. The additional seats mean NASA does not have to rely on commercial crew vehicles for ISS crew transport until the second half of 2019.

“We’re still thinking about ways to buy additional margin if we have to. There’s a whole spectrum of options that we are considering,” said Kirk Shireman, ISS program manager, at a Dec. 11 press conference at the Kennedy Space Center. He did not elaborate on those options.

“We are going to look for options until he first rotation flight, because that’s our job, to be prepared for contingencies,” he added, “but I think we are absolutely progressing and look forward to demo flights in 2018.”

The status of the NASA commercial crew program will be the subject of a Jan. 17 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, which the committee announced Jan. 10. Boeing and SpaceX executives are scheduled to testify, along with officials from NASA, the Government Accountability Office and NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

Original Link

Sierra Nevada clears Dream Chaser test milestone

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser test article makes a landing Nov. 11 at Edwards Air Force Base in California at the conclusion of a glide flight. Credit: NASA/Carla Thomas

WASHINGTON — Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced Jan. 5 that NASA has confirmed that the company’s Dream Chaser vehicle passed a key milestone during its November free flight test.

In a statement, SNC said that NASA concluded that the Nov. 11 free flight of the Dream Chaser engineering test article, at Edwards Air Force Base in California, met or exceeded all the requirements of the company’s last remaining funded milestone in its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) award from 2012.

During the flight test, the Dream Chaser was released from a helicopter at an altitude of about 3,750 meters and glided to an autonomous runway landing 60 seconds later, reaching a top speed of 530 kilometers per hour during its descent.

The company said in a call with reporters two days after the flight that it went as planned, but needed to wait for NASA to verify that assessment, which the agency has now done.

“The test was a huge success and when we looked at the data, we were thrilled to see how closely our flight performance projections matched the actual flight data,” Steve Lindsey, vice president of space exploration systems at SNC, said in a statement about the milestone approval. “This gives us high confidence in our atmospheric flight performance as we move towards orbital operations.”

The milestone, formally known as Milestone 4B, was the last funded milestone in the CCiCap Space Act Agreement that SNC received from NASA in August 2012. The milestone is valued at $8 million, according to NASA documentation. The company has added additional unfunded milestones to that agreement, which SNC and NASA extended last year for five years, to support potential future development of a crewed version of Dream Chaser.

SNC now, though, is focused on developing the version of Dream Chaser that will transport cargo to and from the International Space Station under a Commercial Resupply Services 2 contract awarded to SNC in January 2016. A critical design review for that version of the vehicle is scheduled for the middle of this year, although elements of the first orbital vehicle are already under construction to support a first launch in 2020.

After the November flight, SNC executives said that, if NASA agreed the flight met the milestone requirements, the vehicle would be put into storage. “If we have all the data that we needed from the test, and if NASA concludes that with us, the vehicle will not need any further flight tests,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems unit, said at the time.

Sirangelo, in the statement, noted that the successful flight took place just after the 70th anniversary of the first supersonic aircraft flight and the 40th anniversary of the final shuttle approach and landing test flight, both hosted at Edwards. “With that historic legacy, I would like to extend our sincere appreciation to our whole flight team,” he said.

Original Link

NASA expects commercial crew providers to achieve safety requirements

A NASA manager says Boeing and SpaceX should be able to achieve, or come close to, safety requirements established by NASA for their commercial crew spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX artist’s concept and Boeing

WASHINGTON — As the two companies developing commercial crew vehicles prepare for test flights in the next 12 months, a NASA official said the agency expects those companies to be able to meet, or come close to, stringent safety requirements for those spacecraft.

At a Nov. 29 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee, Lisa Colloredo, deputy program manager for NASA’s commercial crew program, said Boeing and SpaceX were making good progress towards achieving a “loss of crew”, or LOC, requirement established by NASA at the beginning of the program.

The LOC requirement states that the odds of an accident killing or causing serious injury to a crewmember be no more than 1 in 270 flights for a 210-day mission at the International Space Station. That covers all aspects of the mission, including launch and reentry.

“We have a very difficult LOC requirement to meet, and we knew that when we going in,” Colloredo said. The 1-in-270 LOC requirement for commercial crew is more stringent than the 1-in-90 value at the end of the shuttle program. “I would say that we’ve made a lot of progress, and the providers have both done a lot of redesign work to improve their LOC numbers.”

Those changes, she said, include “more robustness” to the thermal protection systems on the spacecraft and additional parachute testing. “It’s served its purpose of getting the right look at the top drivers for LOC,” she said, including making design changes to improve those values.

Colloredo said she expected that both companies would meet the 1-in-270 LOC requirement, or come close enough that NASA would be willing to accept the vehicles as safe enough for its astronauts. “It’s pretty likely in the end that SpaceX and Boeing will come in with their evidence that they meet the requirement or close to it,” she said. Ultimately, she said, it will require NASA due diligence to either confirm they meet the requirement or be willing to accept a variance from the requirement in a specific area.

Another NASA committee has also monitored the ability of Boeing and SpaceX to meet the LOC requirement. At the October meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), committee members discussed the progress both companies were making on addressing key risk issues for their systems.

“The ASAP believes that NASA is judiciously continuing to address the risk drivers with the providers for the most serious scenarios through continued analysis, modeling, testing, and design development. It remains challenging,” the panel noted in the minutes from that meeting. “Nevertheless, the focus on worst case scenarios has driven positive design decisions for both providers, as well as other aspects such as increases in systems testing for some of the systems that carry notable risks.”

The biggest challenge, ASAP reported, was meeting micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection requirements. NASA was working to improve the modeling of the risks posed to those spacecraft from micrometeoroids and orbital debris through experiments mounted on the station as well as on Dragon cargo spacecraft.

At the NASA Advisory Council committee meeting, Colloredo said the LOC requirement was the biggest programmatic issue facing the overall program, but not the only one. She said NASA was assessing if it had included all the costs of various government-provided services for commercial crew missions. It was also working to ensure that search and rescue training for Air Force personnel supporting commercial crew launches would be ready in time for the first missions.

Both companies are working to schedules that call for both uncrewed and crewed test flights in 2018, although later in the year than previously planned. SpaceX is planning an uncrewed test of its Crew Dragon in April, previously scheduled for February. The crewed test flight is now planned for August, instead of June. Between the two flights will be an in-flight abort test.

Boeing’s uncrewed test flight of its CST-100 Starliner is now scheduled for August, two months later than previously planned. The crewed test flight has shifted from August to November, although the company said earlier this fall that the crewed test flight might slip into early 2019.

“We’re making a lot of progress with the providers,” Colloredo said. “We’re getting prepared for flight and we acknowledge that we have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Original Link

Crewed Starliner test flight could slip to 2019

Boeing now plans an uncrewed CST-100 Starliner test flight in the third quarter of 2018, with a crewed flight in the fourth quarter or, possibly, early 2019. Credit: Boeing

ADELAIDE, Australia — Boeing says it is making good progress on the development of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, but acknowledged the first crewed test flight of the spacecraft might not take place until early 2019.

During a panel discussion at the 68th International Astronautical Congress here Sept. 26, Chris Ferguson, director of Starliner crew and mission systems at Boeing, said the company was in the middle of a wide-ranging development program with development of flight hardware and testing of many different vehicle systems.

“We’re in the thick of testing right now, with the intent of flying at least our uncrewed test flight next year, and ideally both our uncrewed and our crewed test flight,” he said.

In an interview at the conference, Ferguson said that the company’s current schedule calls for a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the second quarter of 2018. That would be followed by an uncrewed orbital test flight of the vehicle, launched on an Atlas 5, in the third quarter of 2018.

“If the results of that are very favorable,” he said of the uncrewed flight test, “our crewed flight test is fourth quarter — perhaps, depending on the outcome, maybe the first quarter of the following year.”

He didn’t identify any particular system with the vehicle that was on the critical path to those test flights. “We’ll fly when we’re ready,” he said. “There’s a lot of pieces that have to come together to enable us to do that.”

Ferguson said that the company plans to work with NASA to select a crew for that crewed test flight about a year before its launch, or “L-12 months,” but wants a greater degree of confidence in the schedule before doing so.

“Every day we’re met with new challenges. We’ll do our best to stick with that L-12 month target. Obviously, since it’s based on a launch date, we’ll have to flex accordingly,” he said. “If we maintain our fourth quarter target for next year, you could probably see a crew announcement some time in the latter part of this year.”

Once the Starliner completes the flight test program and is certified by NASA, Boeing has a contract for six flights to transport NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Ferguson said the company is also marketing the vehicle for potential non-NASA customers.

“We are looking for participants in the form of countries, industries and individuals that want to participate in this great business of human spaceflight,” he said, noting that NASA remained the “flagship” customer for Starliner.

Asked if Boeing was actively marketing Starliner to commercial customers, he referred to a spacecraft docking simulator the company has on display in the conference exhibit hall. “I don’t think we would bring this here if we weren’t out trying to engage potential customers,” he said.

Ferguson said that, after several years of development, he was feeling increasingly optimistic that Starliner would soon fly.

“After six years of my involvement, and several more years before that, it finally looks like it’s beginning to come together. I’ve got a very good feeling about our ability to get launched next year.”

Original Link