By Bob Granath
NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center
On Jan. 22, NASA took a crucial next step toward launching astronauts to the International Space Station from the United States. Beginning the first phase of the Commercial Crew Program’s (CCP) certification efforts, three companies now are conducting activities that will confirm commercial spacecraft are safe to carry crews to the station.
This landmark comes as the agency celebrates the 45th anniversary of an essential stage in sending Americans to the moon.
Launched Jan. 22, 1968, Apollo 5 was the first unpiloted flight of an Apollo lunar module successfully flown from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, establishing the module’s ability to perform as designed. The mission also helped certify that the spacecraft could safely fly with astronauts on its next mission.
Similarly, through May 30, 2014, three companies are working under contract with CCP to develop products to implement the agency’s flight safety and performance standards and requirements. The Certification Products Contracts (CPC) will establish standards across all aspects of commercial crew systems, including design of the spacecraft, launch vehicles, and ground and mission operations.
As the first human spaceflight development program based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, CCP will provide the U.S. its own transportation capabilities to the International Space Station.
“Throughout the phases of this program, we’ve really been creating a capability for the nation to use for low-Earth orbit transportation,” said Ed Mango, CCP manager at Kennedy. “As we create that capability, then NASA will become a customer so that we can move our flight crew to the International Space Station and continue our critical science.”
The CPC contractors are The Boeing Company of Houston developing the CST-100 spacecraft that will launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket; Sierra Nevada Corp. Space System of Louisville, Colo., building the Dream Chaser also set to launch on an Atlas V; and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., maturing its Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket for crewed missions.
Under the contract’s certification plan, resulting data will aid in developing engineering standards, as well as needed tests and analyses of crew transportation system designs. The second phase of certification efforts, expected to begin in mid-2014, will involve a full and open competition. It will include the final development, testing and verification processes necessary to allow piloted demonstration flights to the space station.
NASA is facilitating the development of U.S. commercial crew space transportation capabilities with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access to and from low-Earth orbit for potential government and commercial customers.
Like the goals of CPC, a key objective of Apollo 5 was to ensure the vehicle would fly safely. Mission objectives included verifying that both the lunar module’s ascent and descent engines would ignite as planned and evaluating the strength of the spacecraft’s overall structure.
The engine that would be used to land on the moon was fired several times. Then, the ascent engine was ignited successfully simulating an abort during the landing phase. This involved the ascent propulsion system being started simultaneously with the descent engine being shut down.
At the time, Maj. Gen. Samuel Philips, director of the Apollo Program Office, said that the lunar module’s maiden flight completed testing of the last major piece of Apollo flight hardware. All other Apollo hardware elements had been tested throughout the previous two years.
Between late 1968 and the end of 1972, 11 piloted Apollo missions were flown, nine going to the moon, six of which landed on the lunar surface.
Running concurrently with CPC is the agency’s CCiCap initiative, short for Commercial Crew Integrated Capability. During CCiCap, SpaceX is planning for a pad abort test and in-flight abort test, SNC will begin its flight test phase, and Boeing, working with its subcontractor ULA, will check the compatibility between their spacecraft and launch vehicle. All of these milestones could be used by NASA in the future to validate the commercial systems are safe for crews, much like the Apollo 5 mission did 45 years ago.
While NASA works with U.S. industry partners to develop commercial crew capabilities to transport American astronauts to the space station in low-Earth orbit, work also is ongoing for NASA’s first spacecraft to travel beyond the moon.
“We have a complementary, dual strategy at NASA,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development at Headquarters in Washington. “We’re letting the private sector take a little bit more responsibility for low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station cargo re-supply and crew transportation while NASA retains its more traditional role in the deep space exploration part.”