What Lies Ahead for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program

Completing an end-to-end uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon departed the International Space Station at 2:32 a.m. EST Friday, March 8, 2019, and splashed down at 8:45 a.m. in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 nautical miles off the Florida coast. (Credits: NASA Television)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The splashdown of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft this morning after a successful automated flight to the International Space Station (ISS) kicks off a busy period for NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

The first tasks for SpaceX and NASA will be to examine spacecraft and analyze data collected during the Demo 1 flight to see how well the vehicle performed and to address any problems that came up.

Earlier today, an agency officials said they saw nothing thus far to preclude flying astronauts aboard a Crew Dragon later this year. Before that can happen, Elon Musk’s company must complete three other milestones.

The first one is an in-flight abort test using the same Crew Dragon capsule that was fished out of the Atlantic Ocean this morning. The vehicle will be launched aboard a Falcon 9 that will be shut down prematurely. The planning date for that test is June.

A Crew Dragon with two astronauts aboard will then conduct a flight test to the space station. The planning date for that flight is July.

Finally, NASA and SpaceX will spend several months certifying the vehicle to begin flying astronauts to ISS under a commercial contract.

While all that is going on, NASA will be working with Boeing on preparing the company’s Starliner spacecraft to fly astronauts. The planning dates for upcoming Starliner milestones are:

  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): No earlier than (NET) April 2019
  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: NET May 2019
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): NET August 2019.

Boeing’s crew flight test could turn into a long-term stay at the space station. Former NASA astronaut Chris Ferguson, who is now an executive at Boeing, is training for an extended mission aboard the orbiting facility.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Here’s hoping the flight review finds nothing worth stopping flights over. Great work SpaceX and NASA. Let’s get some meat in that wagon!

  • Robert Sutton

    Why no Boeing in flight abort test?

  • Malatrope

    Because Boeing is a giant, favored company, and SpaceX is an upstart still undergoing initiation rituals (/sarc).

    Seriously, I think NASA is still wary of the SuperDraco thrusters. It’s a reasonable concern, but one that I think will be put to bed fairly quickly. They don’t want to bankrupt one of their two potential suppliers of manned service flights to the ISS.

  • ThomasLMatula

    And let’s not forget just how expensive it is to launch an Atlas V. SpaceX has numerous flight proven boosters available to use, whereas ULA would have to provide a brand new and expensive Atlas V system to destroy in the test, so the out of pocket costs would be several time greater for Boeing. So NASA is just going to have to trust Boeing’s computer simulations instead.

    What would be fun is if SpaceX gets it’s booster back to fly another day as Blue Origin did. It will be interesting to watch.

  • Malatrope

    There is a chance. I’ll be watching with fingers crossed. Wouldn’t want Bezos to get one over Musk!

  • Robert G. Oler

    the official reason, and the engineering one is that the shape of the CST 100 is well understood in abort modes

  • Cameron

    Their test plan did not include one. SpaceX’s did. NASA approved both.

  • Cameron

    An Atlas launch would not be essential – Apollo’s launch abort system was not tested on a Saturn!

  • ThomasLMatula

    True, they just used the Little Joe. But it would probably as much to design and build something like that today as it would be to use the Atlas V.

  • redneck

    So run the max q on a far less expensive F9. Testing the capsule, right? I know better but it’s fun throwing it out there.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But that would mean that Boeing would have to buy a launch from SpaceX if they used a F9R for an abort test. And it might get folks to asking why they are using an expensive Atlas V with a brand new upper stage for the CST-100 when it’s possible to use a Falcon. Nope, far better to play the Boeing “reputation” card then do such an unspeakable act.

  • Robert G. Oler

    no

  • Robert G. Oler

    you are no engineer or pilot wrong on all counts

  • ThomasLMatula

    I never claimed to be.😊

    But none of that is related to engineering, it’s simply how Old Space firms behave.

    And Boeing did buy out Rockwell which had earlier merged with North American, builders of the Apollo capsule and Shuttle Orbiter.

  • Malatrope

    Boy, there was a comment with a great deal of content you just made, there.

    As you said elsewhere, there is no concern about the shape of the Boeing capsule. But the thrusters make the backshell of the Dragon 2 asymmetric around the origin, and this hasn’t been thoroughly tested yet. I do believe we are saying the same thing. Musk himself has stated that he’s concerned about the introduction of a roll moment, even though his simulations do not indicate one.

  • Robert G. Oler

    why the Boeing design does not need an inflight abort is all related to engineering

  • Robert G. Oler

    just waking up here (two days off and I am beat) I think, as I recall I was responding to your last sentence, should have been clearer…but yes its all engineering

  • duheagle

    It was also assumed, early on, that its aerodynamic interaction with the Atlas V launch vehicle was well-understood. That didn’t pan out so well. Let’s hope we never have to find out, with people aboard, just how well – or not – the Starliner abort system actually works under live-fire conditions.

  • duheagle

    Given that both the nature of the milestones as well as the payments for each were subject to negotiation between the two CC suppliers and NASA up-front – and given the additional fact that Boeing wasn’t exactly bashful about asking for a lot more money than SpaceX overall – I don’t see the expense argument as holding much water given that NASA would have picked up the check.

    Of course my argument is also premised on a putative Starliner in-flight abort test being successful. Perhaps Boeing was simply unwilling to chance eating the cost of a do-over in the event the test went pear-shaped in some way. If true, that isn’t exactly a point in favor of Starliner.

  • duheagle

    Garbage. It’s entirely related to reputation protection, Nervous Nelly-ism and a sense of entitlement on Boeing’s part.

  • duheagle

    It isn’t engineering, it’s do-the-least-to-get-by-ism.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Well the animation

  • ThomasLMatula

    By comparison, here is video from the actual Abort Test SpaceX did in 2015 with the Dragon2.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_FXVjf46T8

  • ThomasLMatula

    Well the animation Boeing has of their Pad Abort Test doesn’t show any
    problems. We will see how accurate their simulations are when they get
    around to actually doing it.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZg5CCAyiTA

  • Robert G. Oler

    you have demonstrated here no expertise to make any engineering judgments on this level or really any level

  • Malatrope

    No worries. I wasn’t very awake either.

  • redneck

    That one looks seriously hairy to me.Inside the fireball just doesn’t seem habit forming to me.

  • Robert G. Oler

    stay frosty 🙂 another day off tomorrow 🙂

  • Helping Mate

    They are abusing a human being for their Ripley humanoid. Ripley was connected with sensors to the person implanted with biosensors. More at http://www.helpingmate.com link is Journal of Torture 2019, three last entries

  • Helping Mate

    They are abusing a human being for their Ripley humanoid. Ripley was connected with sensors to the person implanted with biosensors. More at http://www.helpingmate.com link is Journal of Torture 2019

  • delphinus100

    Yes, although Blue chose to retire that one. It survived, but still was too seriously stressed for anything else.

  • ThomasLMatula

    It was scheduled to be retired before the flight for a more advanced version, having made four successful flights. The booster SpaceX is using has already flown three times so there will be no lost if it doesn’t survive the abort flight.

  • ThomasLMatula

    But it’s NASA, so you know it’s the best way to do it.😄

  • ThomasLMatula

    That seems to be the same style of thinking that led to the Apollo 1 fire, Challenger and Columbia. “We understand the issues and it will be fine.”

  • ThomasLMatula

    It appears that for the moment NASA is happy with the Dragon2 flight.

    https://www.teslarati.com/spacex-crew-dragon-port-return/

    SpaceX’s Crew Dragon returns to port as NASA praises successful launch debut
    by Eric Ralph
    Posted on March 10, 2019

  • redneck

    A proper safety culture checks all the boxes, just doesn’t look inside them.

  • duheagle

    You need to be writing screenplays or ginning up a TV series pitch to Netflix or some such. You’re not going to find much of a market for fictional horror stories here.

    As Musk libels go, though, it has a certain originality.

    Best wishes on monetizing your obvious gift for creepy fantasy. Stephen King never really got his mojo back after the accident, so… go for it.

  • duheagle

    At least I don’t try to peddle ideas as dumb as that Boeing deserves special treatment because… engineering with a straight face.

    You are, in essence, claiming that Boeing is better at simulation and prediction than SpaceX and, thus, doesn’t need to do as much testing. Given that Boeing’s vaunted analytical skills obviously didn’t catch the resonance issue that befell the Starliner abort system’s propellant valves, that claim is obviously open to serious question.

    Now what part of the preceding analysis is it that requires me to have an engineering degree in order to be credible?

  • duheagle

    The three mains looked to be rubbin ‘n bumpin’ as much or more on this abort test as the mains for D2 were doing on Friday – as was also the case with the Orion drop test video you posted then. The opening of the three mains wasn’t as well synchronized as D2’s either.

  • duheagle

    Here’s to the Good ‘Ole Days – and may they never come back.

  • Robert G. Oler

    At least I don’t try to peddle ideas as dumb as that Boeing deserves

    special treatment because… engineering with a straight face.You

    are, in essence, claiming that Boeing is better at simulation and

    prediction than SpaceX and, thus, doesn’t need to do as much testing.”

    those are your conclusions not mine

    what I said, ,read carefully here, put your finger to the screen for each word if you need to, is that the performance of the shape of the Boeing capsule is well understood in maxQ aborts and it was decided based on sound engineering criteria that no further data was needed.

    the shape of the capsule is the operative thing, not the rocket it flies on, this is why most of the data for the capsule comes from things tested on a Little Joe rocket 🙂

    “Given that Boeing’s vaunted analytical skills obviously didn’t catch the

    resonance issue that befell the Starliner abort system’s propellant

    valves, that claim is obviously open to serious question.”

    only in the world of someone who is a fan boy not an engineer. the failure of Boeing’s analytical skills was “CONFIRMED” by testing that boeing did to validate the analytical model of something that had never been flown before. unlike the capsule shape, which has flown a lot

    “Now what part of the preceding analysis is it that requires me to have an engineering degree in order to be credible?”

    well you probably dont need an engineering degree to grasp it, but sound logical thinking would help

    thats your first step, along with ditching the fan boy hat

  • Robert G. Oler

    sigh

    no

    The Apollo 1 fire and the two shuttle accidents are completely different in terms of how they happened.

    the shuttle accidents were instances of KNOWN failures being ignored…not “we understand the problem” just that they were simply being ignored.

    the Apollo1 fire was different. it was an example of a problem simply not being thought out. there had been no evidence of problems so no real critical analysis was done of the procedure.

    there you go again

  • Robert G. Oler

    It was also assumed, early on, that its aerodynamic interaction with the
    Atlas V launch vehicle was well-understood. That didn’t pan out so
    well.

    they caught it without a flight…that is what wind tunnel and CAA is for…work on logic

  • duheagle

    Of course those are my conclusions. Keen grasp of the obvious there.

    As to the rest of your “engineering” case:

    1) The “Apollo” capsule shape has flown a lot. But, in abort mode, it has only flown with tractor launch abort systems, not with the pusher system Starliner uses.

    2) With that pusher abort system attached, Starliner is no longer the same shape as Apollo either. The module containing the launch escape system is a shallow cylinder hooked to the base of the Apollo-esque “gumdrop” crew capsule shape.

    3) The combined Starliner ascent unit would also have a different CG than the crew capsule part considered separately. Nor can the flight dynamics be assumed to be similar.

    In short, there seem plenty enough engineering question marks here that an actual in-flight abort test seems thoroughly justified.

  • duheagle

    I think you mean CAE or CFD there, troop. CAA is an agency in Hollywood.

    My point that analysis can miss things stands. Nature doesn’t chop you for what you catch, but for what you don’t.

  • Robert G. Oler

    1) The “Apollo” capsule shape

    flown a lot. But, in abort

    mode, it has only flown with tractor launch abort systems, not with the

    pusher system Starliner uses.”

    the ejection system is not relevant. it makes no difference…as long as it gets theneeded velocity and vector

    “2) With that pusher abort system attached, Starliner is no longer the

    same shape as Apollo either. The module containing the launch escape

    system is a shallow cylinder hooked to the base of the Apollo-esque

    “gumdrop” crew capsule shape.”

    not relevant to the aerodymanics.

    “3) The combined Starliner ascent unit would also have a different CG
    than the crew capsule part considered separately. Nor can the flight
    dynamics be assumed to be similar.”

    you are closer there at least and finally but no cigar the CG is only relative to the thrust and velocity vector and I am told that they are nearly similar and with in the envelope thanks to the shallow cylinder you mentioned.

    Boeing is the worlds expert in aerodynamics. they have not had a bomb yet. 🙂 no worries.

  • Robert G. Oler

    sorry typo…while doing this I am watching Richard Quest try and be an aerodynamics expert, and working on programming the new repeater controller for the ABY machineback in houston. had a spare 486DX 🙂 machine which with a Pi for a backup will do very nicely for the remote receivers we have…

    tomorrow is kind of a milestone, our weather/APRS/ADSB system at the South pole is 25 years old and the two commodores that run it have been chugging that long 🙂