Members of NASA’s independent safety advisory panel on Thursday warned the space agency not to rush into a test flight for the crew of Boeing’s troubled Starliner spacecraft, raising concerns about final certification of the capsule’s parachutes and Boeing’s staffing. the program.
The security advisers also said there are “clear security concerns” over SpaceX’s plan to launch the giant Starship rocket from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the same facility used for crew missions to the International Space Station.
Boeing plans to rerun a trouble-plagued test flight of its Starliner crew capsule next week. The mission – called Orbital Flight Test-2 or OFT-2 – will not carry astronauts. But if all goes well, the OFT-2 mission will pave the way for the next Starliner launch to bring a crew to the space station for one final demonstration mission — dubbed the Crew Flight Test, or CFT — before NASA and Boeing. new commercial vehicle ready for use.
The Starliner spacecraft, developed in a public-private partnership, will give NASA a second human-rated capsule that can carry astronauts to and from the space station, in addition to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which will launch with a crew for the first time in May 2020. was launched.
With SpaceX now providing regular crew transportation to the space station, NASA officials had time to troubleshoot technical issues with the Starliner spacecraft. Nevertheless, NASA would like to have two carriers for crews to avoid having to rely again on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut flights in the event that SpaceX suffers significant delays.
“The panel is pleased that, on all indications, there is no need to rush to CFT,” David West, a member of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said in a public meeting Thursday. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us (at NASA) is that the program will move on to CFT when and only when they are ready. Of course, the best path to CFT is a successful OFT-2.”
Since 2010, NASA has signed a series of contracts with Boeing, worth more than $5 billion, for the development, flight testing and operations of Starliner. The contracts include agreements for six crew rotational flights to the space station — each with a crew of four — following the completion of the OFT-2 mission and the shorter crew flight test with astronauts on board.
But the Starliner program has been delayed for years. Software issues prevented the spacecraft from docking at the space station during the OFT-1 mission in 2019, forcing Boeing to assemble a second unmanned test flight at its own expense. The OFT-2 mission was on the launch pad, ready for launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, last August when engineers noticed that 13 oxidation isolation valves in the Starliner spacecraft’s propulsion system were stuck in the closed position.
After nine months of testing, research and a move to a new propulsion module, Boeing returned the Starliner spacecraft to ULA’s missile hangar on May 4 to lift it atop an Atlas 5 rocket, ready for a fresh start at launch. Read our previous story about the valve repairs.
West said on Thursday that NASA executives have signed the oxidation valve solution for the OFT-2 mission, but noted that “there is some question as to whether a redesign of the valve will be necessary for future flights after OFT-2.” He also said managers approved the “flight reason” for problems with a high-pressure lockout valve on the Starliner command module’s propulsion system, a different problem than the oxidation valves in the service module.
“There is also concern that Boeing parachute certification is lagging behind,” West said.
He also noted a “significant programmatic concern” with the limited number of human-rated Atlas 5 missiles remaining in ULA’s inventory. ULA has 24 more Atlas 5 missiles to fly before the missile is retired in favor of the cheaper, more powerful Vulcan Centaur missile.
Eight of those 24 rockets have already been assigned to the Starliner program, enough to meet Boeing’s contractual requirement to NASA, which includes two more test flights and six operational crew rotation missions to the space station.
ULA’s new Vulcan missile hasn’t flown yet.
“Another factor is that the Vulcan launch vehicle to replace the Atlas 5 for Starliner launches must be certified for manned spaceflight, and the process to get that certification can take years,” West said.
West, a longtime technical safety manager and exam director with the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, said the general concern about NASA personnel and contractors in the agency’s manned spaceflight program “is particularly important in the case of Boeing.
“The panel noted that Boeing’s workforce appears to be particularly low,” West said. “The panel will monitor the situation for the foreseeable future to see what impact it could have on the existence or mitigation of any security risks.
“While we don’t want to rush into the launch of the CFT unnecessarily, Boeing must ensure that all available resources are deployed to meet a reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays,” saddened West.
“We definitely support the idea of not launching until (it) is done, until all safety is taken care of,” said Mark Sirangelo, another member of the safety panel. “At the same time, if the delays are caused by a lack of funds being applied to the program, that will have, or could have, significant implications for NASA’s return to the moon schedule and many other things that involve get out of those delays.”
NASA and Boeing officials have declined to set a target schedule for the Crew Flight Test, saying only that preparations for the capsule for the first astronaut mission were on track to have the vehicle ready for launch by the end of this year. The schedule for the Crew Flight Test will depend largely on the outcome of the OFT-2 mission.
SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, has completed five crew launches for NASA, plus two completely private astronaut missions using the company’s Dragon spacecraft.
Officials said last year that SpaceX would end production of new Dragon capsules after building four human-rated vehicles. The fourth and newest member of the fleet was launched for the first time last month. Each Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights, and SpaceX and NASA could certify the capsule for additional missions.
“We are absolutely concerned whether the requirements for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS for the remaining lifespan, whatever that may be, can be met without additional dragons,” West said. “It would be advisable to conduct parametric studies to inform and support relevant decisions about whether more Dragon capsules are needed.
“Dragon’s launch rate will remain, however, and steps will be taken to maintain its launch speed,” West said. “Some of these measures may include delaying preventive maintenance and reusing Dragon multiple times. “The panel will closely monitor whether these measures can be implemented without increasing the risk.
“By the way, it should be noted that there is a huge amount of data coming from all these SpaceX launches,” West said. “While the data may benefit NASA, we think care should be taken not to get overwhelmed by too much data.”
In February, NASA ordered three more crew rotation missions from SpaceX, in addition to the six flights on the original commercial crew contract. Once Starliner is operational, NASA plans to alternate crews between Boeing and SpaceX every six months, giving each provider one NASA astronaut flight per year.
West added that SpaceX’s plans to eventually launch the massive next-generation Starship rocket currently under development in South Texas from the Kennedy Space Center could pose a risk to the Falcon 9 and Dragon launch facility at path 39A.
“One possible option identified for launching Starship is from a planned new facility within the physical confines around pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, where Dragons are launched,” West said. “There are obvious safety concerns in launching the large, and as yet unproven, spacecraft into such a close range, reportedly only 300 meters or so, from any other path, let alone the path so essential for the commercial crew program.”
Pad 39A is also the only launch facility currently capable of launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is needed to launch heavier NASA and US military spacecraft into orbit.
Together, the Starship and its gigantic Super Heavy booster stage are almost 120 meters high. The system is designed to be fully reusable, and SpaceX plans to land the Starship booster and upper stage vertically back on the launch site.
SpaceX completes work on a Starship launch pad in South Texas, but the Federal Aviation Administration is assessing the environmental impact of SpaceX’s operations at the site before issuing a commercial launch license for the first full-up Starship orbital test flight.
NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract last year to develop a version of the Starship vehicle to land astronauts on the moon.
“In closing, I just want to say that these are extremely complex times for the CCP,” West said, referring to NASA’s commercial crew program. “As the published Starship launch site demonstrates, there are many external, but related, considerations to be made. However, one thing that remains clear is that it is still very important to get to the point where NASA has two viable CCP providers.”
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