NASA, Commercial Partners Progress to Human Spaceflight Home Stretch

The upper and lower domes of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Spacecraft 2 Crew Flight Test Vehicle were mated June 19, 2018, inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. On the right, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft that will be used for the company’s uncrewed flight test, known as Demonstration Mission 1, arrived to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on July 10, 2018. (Credits: Photo on the left, Boeing, on the right: NASA/SpaceX)

By Madison Tuttle
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

NASA and commercial industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are making significant advances in preparing to launch astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. As part of the Commercial Crew Program’s public-private partnership, both companies are fine-tuning their designs, integrating hardware, and testing their crew spacecraft and rockets to prepare for test flights

Here’s a look at the milestones so far in 2018:

Crew and International Space Station

Commercial Crew Program astronauts, from the left, Suni Williams, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley take in the view from the top of Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: SpaceX)

In March, astronaut Eric Boe visited Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. He had the opportunity to see a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on the pad and check out the Crew Access Tower. The crew assigned to Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft will launch from SLC-41 atop an Atlas V on their way to the International Space Station.

Also in March, astronauts Bob Behnken, Eric Boe, Doug Hurley and Suni Williams toured SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A facilities to survey the launch pad and tower modifications. The crew assigned to fly on the company’s Crew Dragon will liftoff aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from historic pad 39A.

Later in April, NASA trained Boeing and SpaceX teams to operate the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armored vehicle designed to help personnel escape the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency on launch day. Astronauts and ground crews would have the option to shelter in place in the MRAP, or drive away from the launch pad.

In June, astronauts Ricky Arnold and Drew Feustel installed new cameras on the space station during a spacewalk. These high-definition cameras will provide NASA with an enhanced look of Boeing and SpaceX’s capsules as they approach and dock to the station.


NASA astronaut Eric Boe, one of four astronauts working with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, had the opportunity to check out the Crew Access Tower at Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V on the pad. (Credit: Boeing)

Boeing continues to manufacture its Starliner spacecraft inside NASA Kennedy Space Center’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility in Florida. The company is currently producing three Starliner spacecraft. Boeing’s Starliner is designed to be reused up to 10 times.

In January, astronauts had the opportunity to train using mixed reality—a combination of real world and virtual environment—technology to practice exiting their seats in an uncommon landing situation. The crew were suited up and secured in a mock-up Starliner allowing them to simulate removing their seat harness and opening the hatch of the spacecraft without assistance.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Orbital Flight Test dual engine Centaur stage of the Atlas V rocket is in the final stage of production and checkout on May 22, 2018, at ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. (Credit: United Launch Alliance)

In February, Boeing completed the first in a series of reliability tests of the Starliner flight drogue and main parachute systems in Yuma, Arizona. Data collected from these tests continue to improve accuracy of computer models in predicting parachute performance and verifying reliability.

In March, teams from Boeing, NASA and ULA gathered in control rooms across the country for an integrated crew exercise of Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test. Boeing also completed two joint rendezvous docking system simulations with the space station.

In May, the White Room, which astronauts will walk through just before boarding Starliner, was installed on SLC-41.

In June, Boeing, NASA and U.S. Army teams rehearsed safely bringing the Starliner spacecraft home to Earth at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. When the vehicle prepares for landing, it will deploy a parachute system and touch down in the desert. This exercise tested procedures and communication in place for recovery teams to retrieve the capsule and the crew after landing.

Also in June, Boeing, ULA and NASA simulated an evacuation from SLC-41 to practice escaping from the pad in the unlikely event of an emergency on launch day. Astronauts and ground crews rehearsed zip lining from the launch tower to the ground and driving an MRAP to a triage site for medical attention. Boeing also connected the upper and lower domes of its Crew Flight Test spacecraft and attached its docking system in June.

In July, the dual engine Centaur for the ULA Atlas V rocket that will launch Starliner in the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test was completed.


NASA astronaut Suni Williams in a Crew Dragon simulator.

SpaceX continues to test its systems and integrate its launch infrastructure to support the Crew Dragon capsule. The company currently has six Crew Dragon modules in various stages of production and testing.

In March, SpaceX performed two parachute tests, the company’s 14th and 15th overall parachute test supporting Crew Dragon development in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. The latter test demonstrated Crew Dragon’s ability to land safely in an off-nominal situation, deploying only one of the system’s two drogue parachutes and three of the four main parachutes.

In April, astronauts completed a SpaceX spacesuit fit check at the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California. These suits will help keep the astronauts safe and comfortable throughout their journey to and from the space station. The company is manufacturing custom suits for each astronaut to ensure a proper fit and comfortable ride on Crew Dragon.

Also in April, SpaceX, NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD), conducted joint rescue and recovery exercises in the Atlantic Ocean off of Florida’s eastern coast. In this simulation, DOD pararescue specialists jumped from military aircraft, parachuted to the water, and simulated stabilizing the Crew Dragon capsule and safely removing astronauts from the spacecraft.

In May, SpaceX completed its 16th overall parachute system test for Crew Dragon at Naval Air Facility El Centro in Southern California. This test demonstrated the system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event of a low altitude abort.

In June, the Crew Dragon capsule for SpaceX’s uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, arrived at Plum Brook Station at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio. There, the spacecraft underwent testing in the In-Space Propulsion Facility—the world’s only facility capable of testing full-scale upper-stage launch vehicles and rocket engines under simulated high-altitude conditions. The chamber allowed SpaceX and NASA to verify Crew Dragon’s ability to withstand the extreme temperatures and vacuum of space. Crew Dragon also completed acoustical vibration testing on-site at Plum Brook Station.

In July, SpaceX shipped its Crew Dragon spacecraft to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for processing in preparation for Demo-1, and completed its first high-altitude balloon drop test – and 17th overall parachute system test – in the Mojave Desert from ~50,000 feet.  SpaceX also completed another major round of astronaut and operations team training and simulations in preparation for the Demo-2 mission. Heat shield qualification, as well as a majority of qualification testing for both Crew Dragon and Falcon 9, is now complete.

  • delphinus100

    “Astronauts and ground crews would have the option to shelter in place in the MRAP, or drive away from the launch pad.”

    Unless we’re waiting for someone, if the situation is potentially bad enough to need it, and I got that far unscathed, I am *so* hitting the pedal, and getting out of Dodge.

    *Coming back* if nothing goes south after all, is the option… 🙂

  • mlmontagne

    All well and good, but I am deeply disturbed by news articles, based on a recent IG report, which suggest manned flights are not going to be conducted until late 2019, or perhaps even sometime in 2020. Both of these vehicles, of course, as well as most of the rest of the manned spacecraft we are developing (a total of six different models) are little more than biplanes compared to the Space Shuttle, but if you are going to replace your jetliners with biplanes, you should at least not ground your jets ten years before you are ready to fly your biplanes. In five or six years, with luck, BFR will restore and greatly exceed the capabilities of the Space Shuttles. In the mean time, I am really anxious to be able to tell Russia to take their Soyuz and go pound sand.

  • envy

    Crew test flights should be early or mid 2019. Certification and operational flights might not start until late 2019 or early 2020.

  • Jeff2Space

    Comparing the space shuttle to a “jet” and these new capsules “biplanes” is a bit of a stretch. They’ll be able to transport crew to and from ISS for a fraction of the cost of a space shuttle flight. And they’ll hopefully be a lot more reliable than the Russian Soyuz which has had more than its fair share of “close calls” over the years.

  • mlmontagne

    “They’ll be able to transport crew to and from ISS”
    And that is *all* they will be able to do.

  • mlmontagne

    I guess we’ll know more tomorrow, but from what I have been reading, the crew test flights are 12 to 18 months away.

  • envy

    Certification is 12-18 months away; the crew test flights will happen before that.

  • mlmontagne

    I hope you are right, but that is not what has been getting reported recently.

  • envy

    NASA released updated target dates today: SpaceX in April, Boeing in mid-2019

  • envy

    Nope. Dragon can also carry unpressurized cargo. And it can go BLEO with minor modifications to the nav and comms, something the Shuttle could NOT do at all.

  • mlmontagne

    Well, that is good. Those are still quite vague dates, but at least they are targets to shoot for, and are much sooner than the reports I referenced have been suggesting. If SpaceX can actually make April, I will be very happy. I just hope, whenever they finally get them off, the subsequent certification process does not take an entire year. I used to be a NASA safety engineer, back in the early ’90s, and it just really shouldn’t take all that long to figure out that the new spacecraft didn’t blow up the space station.

  • mlmontagne

    Space News’s article on this announcement included this, “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.”
    That’s what I have been reading in recent weeks, and it worries me. It worries me very, very much. Are those dates they announced yesterday realistic, or are they just so much hot air for press consumption?
    What I don’t understand (maybe I should find and read the GAO report) is why they actually think SpaceX is likely to lag so far behind Boeing. SpaceX are the ones with a capsule at the Cape preparing for launch.

  • Jeff2Space

    That’s not quite true. Just because NASA is going to restrict them to ISS missions doesn’t mean that they are not capable of more. For example, even on “deep space” Orion missions, you need a HAB (for extended life support), power module, airlock module, remote manipulator (like the SSRMS), and etc. Orion really is not much more than a deep space taxi in that regard. Orion is actually far less capable than the space shuttle.

  • mlmontagne

    Oh, very true. All this blather about, “Orion’s going to take us to Mars,” is just that, blather. Orion would make a good command module for an interplanetary space ship, but it is not such a ship itself. The thing that is going to restore, and greatly exceed, the capabilities of the Space Shuttle, that will once again be a true space *ship*, is BFR. It’s going to be at lest three or four years before it flies, and five or six wouldn’t surprise me, but when it does, it will render every other spacecraft in existence instantly obsolete. It will be like the first steam ships among sailing vessels, a jet among prop planes, and, indeed, being somewhat nationally chauvinistic, I am pleased to think it will make Soyuz look like a biplane.