NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and its aerospace industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are on the eve of America’s return to human spaceflight launches. By the time the year closes, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be poised for the flight tests that allow our astronauts to travel to the International Space Station lifting off from Florida’s Space Coast.
It won’t be easy. Successful missions will require a comprehensive testing regimen of numerous systems on the ground and in space. That is why the outline of tasks for 2016 is so important. The result of each evaluation will be vital in the design of the systems. From parachute tests, to launch pad certifications, to the completion of spacecraft that will fly into orbit, this year offers both companies opportunities to build on the momentum of 2015 and carry it through to landmark space achievements in 2017.
“A year always seems like a long time when it starts, but the team at NASA and the teams at Boeing and SpaceX know it is going to feel like a very short time as we continue to progress from one step to the next in the final development of a new generation of American spacecraft,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Our success depends on the work we’re doing now to make sure every component and system that will go into these vehicles is safe and reliable for the future.”
Boeing and SpaceX are developing separate spacecraft and launch systems, along with the network of mission and ground support capabilities required to safely fly astronauts to the International Space Station. Commercial crew flights will add an additional crew member to the station, effectively doubling the amount of science and research crews can conduct in the orbiting laboratory.
Here is a rundown of what the companies aim to accomplish this year:
Boeing CST-100 Starliner/United Launch Alliance Atlas V
Parachute Testing: Tests using a full-size spacecraft mock-up, parachutes and airbags will confirm the mechanisms that will allow the Starliner to safely land on land at the end of a mission.
Starliner Structural Test Article and Qualification Test Vehicle: The structural test article and qualification test vehicle are on pace for completion at the company’s assembly facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and will begin a detailed series of tests. The test articles are being built to the same specifications as an operational Starliner. Each will be put through rigors, such as structural load testing, heating and cooling cycles, intense vibration and electromagnetic interference in Florida and California to show the spacecraft will be safe when it encounters the same conditions in orbit. This year we will also see hardware start to come together for two flight tests, as well as two operational missions that NASA has already ordered from Boeing.
Atlas V Construction: At its factory in Decatur, Alabama, United Launch Alliance will begin production of the main boosters of the Atlas V rockets that will launch Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft on flight tests to the International Space Station next year.
Space Launch Complex 41 Modifications: The 200-foot-tall Crew Access Tower is on target to be finished, including the addition of the crew access arm and white room, in 2016. The tower will be used by support staff for the first unpiloted flight test and in support of the astronaut corps as they board Starliners for crewed flights.
Part-Task Trainers: Simulators of all sorts are required to give astronauts and mission controllers a chance to become familiar with a mission profile and to practice for all types of situations. The first simulators for Starliner are to be delivered to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for astronaut training this year.
Spacesuit Qualification: The spacesuits Boeing plans for its crews to wear during launch and entry will go through myriad reviews and tests before they will be qualified for use. Engineers think of a spacesuit as a small spacecraft designed to keep an astronaut alive in tough circumstances, and want to make sure the suits will be up to the task.
C3PF High Bay and Mission Control Center Completion: Construction workers are putting the final touches on the high bay area of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy. Boeing leased the C3PF, as the facility is known, to be the home of the Starliners. The spacecraft will be assembled and processed for launch inside the building that formerly housed NASA’s space shuttles and main engines between missions. Boeing also will complete its Mission Control Center at Kennedy across the street from the C3PF. The center will house controllers and engineers as they oversee the countdown and launch of Starliner flights and communicate with teams at Johnson.
High-Fidelity Boeing Mission Simulator: Boeing is constructing a full-scale, high-fidelity Starliner simulator that will let astronauts practice all the aspects of a mission. Unlike part-task trainers that focus on a specific mission element, the mission simulator is able to encapsulate all scenarios in a single platform. It is akin to the simulators NASA employed to train astronauts to fly the space shuttles.
Drop Testing in Water: Although the Starliner is meant to land on land, Boeing is preparing for the unlikely case of an emergency water landing. The company will sling full-size Starliner mock-ups into a massive water tank at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia to test its performance in water. More than seeing whether it will float, designers want to see how the Starliner behaves when it hits the water, how it will right itself and how to handle recovery operations.
SpaceX Crew Dragon/ Falcon 9
Parachute Testing: Parachutes are vital for the safe return of our astronaut crews. This year, SpaceX will perform thorough testing of the chutes designed for Crew Dragons. Flown inside a transport aircraft, a Crew Dragon test article will be dropped thousands of feet to see how the four main parachutes deploy. Engineers will then review the data and components after landing to ensure that the systems work as expected.
Spacecraft Testing and Training Mock-Ups: An already-built prototype Crew Dragon is being used to assess astronaut entrance, exit and cabin layout. Two high fidelity mock-ups will be used to perform structural and environmental system tests, including evaluations with hatches open and in other configurations to confirm the design’s strength.
Crew Dragon Assembly Underway: Three Crew Dragon spacecraft are in different stages of production at SpaceX’s headquarters and factory in Hawthorne, California. Two will perform upcoming flight tests to the International Space Station, one without a crew and one with astronauts aboard. The first of these spacecraft will be refurbished after flight for an in-flight abort test that will be conducted from Florida’s Space Coast, while the third will fly the operational crew mission to the station by SpaceX.
Falcon 9 Evaluations and Manufacturing: SpaceX will use upgraded Falcon 9 rockets to lift Crew Dragons into space. The upgraded Falcon 9 rocket had its first flight in December 2015, a successful mission that deployed 11 commercial satellites and landed the first-stage back on land. The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket that has launched numerous spacecraft into orbit, including cargo-laden Dragons that deliver supplies to the space station.
Launch Pad 39A Completion: SpaceX is on pace to finish extensive modifications of Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy so it can launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets this year. Built for the Apollo/Saturn V moon missions and rebuilt for space shuttle launches, the launch pad at has seen a 300-foot long processing hangar built at the base of the pad, the flame trench remodeled and rails added to move rockets into launch position. Workers will install a new crew access arm and white room so astronauts can board the spacecraft while it stands ready for launch atop a rocket.
Spacesuit Qualification: SpaceX will put its spacesuit through numerous tests and evaluations before it will be put on by astronauts headed into space. Even though astronauts will be inside the spacecraft for a mission, they will depend on the spacesuit to provide them with air and perform other functions.
Environmental Control and Life Support System: Testing is targeted for completion this year for the integrated system that provides crews with breathable, temperature-controlled air throughout their mission and keep all of the spacecraft’s systems running smoothly.
Validation of Propulsive Module Land Landing: SpaceX began testing the Crew Dragon propulsive land landing system in McGregor, Texas, late last year. A high-fidelity propulsive module will be used to perform validation testing of the propulsion system in support of land landings. While the company will initially land the Crew Dragon in the water underneath parachutes, the plan is to receive certification of the system for landings on land.