By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
A year after awarding landmark contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to build a new generation of human-rated space systems, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program has made great strides to re-establish America’s capability to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Both companies are constructing the infrastructure needed to safely launch and operate crew space transportation systems. They also have offered detailed refinements to their designs and begun building the test vehicles that will be put through extreme analysis before their flight test regimens begin.
These accomplishments set the tone for the next two critical years that will culminate with operational missions to the International Space Station carrying up to four astronauts. They will increase the amount of time dedicated to research on the orbiting laboratory, solving the problems of long duration spaceflight so astronauts can make a successful journey to Mars in the future.
The contracts awarded Sept. 16, 2014 – known as CCtCap, short for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability – mark the latest in a series of development and certification efforts between NASA and the American aerospace industry since 2010. These contracts call for Boeing and SpaceX to build their systems and conduct flight tests with astronauts aboard in 2017. NASA will use the data gathered to certify the systems for operational missions to the space station.
As innovative as the technology is in the new generation of spacecraft, the process itself is an innovative approach to human spaceflight development. Under the Commercial Crew Program, NASA offered the American aerospace industry a chance to use its own expertise to rethink many aspects of human spaceflight while capitalizing on NASA’s vast, specialized expertise. The end result is shaping up to be the space transportation services NASA envisioned, along with a potential new high-tech industry for America that could open access to space for more people than ever before.
“It’s hard to believe that it has been just a year since we announced the awards, and I think that is because we have made huge progress throughout the past year,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s Commercial Spaceflight Development Division. “We are not done yet. We have perhaps some of the most difficult work ahead of us. It will take the collective efforts of the NASA and industry teams to meet the challenges ahead.”
NASA named four astronauts to train to fly orbital flight tests in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Sunita “Suni” Williams are accomplished astronauts with significant test pilot experience that will be called on during their training.
Boeing completed numerous wind tunnel runs and splash tests of Starliner, while SpaceX conducted intensive software analyses of the flight programming that will operate the Crew Dragon from launch to landing. The evaluation schedules were designed to build on each other with tests becoming increasingly complex.
Boeing and SpaceX are in the midst of modifications along Florida’s Space Coast where both companies will launch. Boeing recently opened its Starliner assembly and processing facility, which took advantage of existing infrastructure to modernize a former space shuttle orbiter processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Boeing and United Launch Alliance also are stacking tiers of the Crew Access Tower nearby at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 where Atlas V rockets will lift Starliners into orbit. SpaceX is upgrading Kennedy’s Launch Pad 39A to serve its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon. SpaceX also is nearing completion of a 300-foot-long horizontal processing hangar at the base of the pad, where spacecraft and rockets will be readied for flight.
Boeing is building a Structural Test Article of the Starliner that will include all the systems of an operational spacecraft. The test version will not go to low-Earth orbit, but will be put through numerous evaluations, including a pad abort test to see how it withstands conditions similar to what it would experience during a mission. The company also will conduct several tests of the parachute system that the Starliner will use to safely land at the end of a mission.
SpaceX completed its pad abort test under a separate agreement with NASA and has a series of propulsion systems tests coming up this year, along with an in-depth review of its plans for the launch pad to accommodate the unique needs of astronauts and ground support teams.
“Construction efforts on both launch pads will continue throughout the end of this year, while Boeing and SpaceX engineers and designers continue testing key systems, building hardware and refining their path to flight,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “All I can say is don’t blink, because crew flight tests to the station in 2017 will be here before you know it, and we have a lot to do in that timeframe.”
When the second anniversary of the contract award comes around next year, NASA and its partners expect to be in the home stretch, preparing for tests on the horizon and the promise of returning human launches to U.S. soil that much closer.