Members of NASA’s Independent Safety Advisory Board warned the space agency on Thursday not to rush into a crewed test flight of Boeing’s troubled Starliner spacecraft, and expressed concerns over final certification of the capsule’s parachutes and the Boeing workforce in the program.
Security advisers also said there were ‘obvious security concerns’ over SpaceX’s plan to launch the giant Starship rocket from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the same facility used for crewed missions. to the International Space Station.
Boeing plans to launch a redesign of a problem-ridden test flight of its Starliner crew capsule next week. The mission – called Orbital Flight Test-2, or OFT-2 – will not carry astronauts. But if all goes well, the OFT-2 mission will pave the way for the next Starliner launch to ferry a crew to the space station for one last demonstration mission — called the Crew Flight Test, or CFT — before NASA and Boeing do. declare the new utility vehicle ready for use.
Developed through a public-private partnership, the Starliner spacecraft will give NASA a second human capsule capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station, alongside SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which launched with a crew for the first time in May 2020.
With SpaceX now providing regular crew transport services to the space station, NASA officials have had time to resolve technical issues with the Starliner spacecraft. Nevertheless, NASA is eager to have two crew transport providers to avoid relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft again for astronaut flights in case SpaceX experiences significant delays.
“The panel is delighted that, by all indications, there is no sense of need to rush to CFT,” Aerospace Security Advisory Group member David West said during a meeting. public on Thursday. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us (from NASA) is that the program will transition to CFT when, and only when, they are ready. Of course, the best route to CFT will be an OFT-2 success. “
NASA has signed a series of contracts with Boeing, valued at more than $5 billion, since 2010 for Starliner development, test flights and operations. The contracts include agreements for six crew rotation flights to the space station – each with a crew of four – following the completion of the OFT-2 mission and the shorter duration crew flight test with astronauts on board.
But the Starliner program has faced years of delays. Software issues prevented the spacecraft from docking with the space station during the OFT-1 mission in 2019, forcing Boeing to stage a second unmanned test flight at its own expense. The OFT-2 mission was on the launch pad last August, ready to lift off atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, when engineers noticed that 13 oxidizer isolation valves in the rocket’s propulsion system Starliner spacecraft were stuck in the closed position.
After nine months of testing, investigation and a swap to a new propulsion module, Boeing transferred the Starliner spacecraft to ULA’s rocket hangar on May 4 to lift it on top of an Atlas rocket. 5, ready for another attempt at launch. Read our previous story on valve repairs.
West said Thursday that NASA officials had approved the oxidation valve fix for the OFT-2 mission, but noted “there is some question as to whether a redesign of the valve will be required for the future flights after OFT-2”. He also said officials approved “flight justification” for issues with a high-pressure lockout valve on the Starliner command module’s propulsion system, a separate issue from the oxidizer valves in the service module. .
“Additionally, there are concerns that the certification of Boeing parachutes is lagging behind,” West said.
He also noted “significant programmatic concern” with the limited number of human-rated Atlas 5 rockets remaining in ULA’s inventory. ULA still has 24 Atlas 5 rockets to fly before retiring the rocket in favor of the cheaper and more powerful Vulcan Centaur rocket.
Eight of those 24 rockets are already assigned to the Starliner program, enough to meet Boeing’s contractual requirement with NASA, which includes two more test flights and six operational crew rotation missions to the space station.
ULA’s new Vulcan rocket has yet to fly.
“Another factor is that the Vulcan launcher that is to replace the Atlas 5 for Starliner launches must be certified for human spaceflight, and the process of getting that certification could take years,” West said.
West, a longtime technical safety manager and director of examinations with the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, said general concerns about NASA and the agency’s human spaceflight program contractors had “a particular importance in the case of Boeing”.
“The panel noted that Boeing’s staffing levels appear to be particularly low,” West said. “The panel will be monitoring the situation in the near future to see what impact, if any, this may have on the existence or mitigation of any security risk.
“While we don’t want to see an undue rush to launch CFT, Boeing should ensure that all available resources are applied to meet a reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays,” West said.
“We are definitely behind the idea of not launching until (this) is ready, until all the security has been taken care of,” said Mark Sirangelo, another member of the security committee. . “At the same time, if the delays are caused by a lack of resources applied to the program, it has significant impacts, or may have significant effects, on NASA’s schedule for its return to the moon and many other things. who are going to get out of these delays.
NASA and Boeing officials declined to set a target timeline for the crew flight test, saying only that capsule preparations for the first astronaut mission were on track to have the vehicle ready. to be launched by the end of this year. The crew flight test schedule will largely depend on the results of the OFT-2 mission.
SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, has performed five crew launches for NASA, as well as two all-private astronaut missions using the company’s fleet of Dragon spacecraft.
Officials said last year that SpaceX would end production of new Dragon capsules after building four human-rated vehicles. The fourth and final member of the fleet was first launched last month. Each Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights, and SpaceX and NASA could certify the capsule for additional missions.
“We are very concerned about whether the requirements for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS throughout whatever remaining lifespan can be met without any additional Dragons,” said West. “It would be advisable to conduct parametric studies to inform and support relevant decisions as to whether more Dragon capsules are needed.
“The Dragon’s launch pace continues however and steps are being taken to maintain the launch pace,” West said. “Some of these measures may include postponing preventive maintenance and reusing Dragon multiple times. “The panel will be watching closely to see if these measures can be implemented without increasing the risks.
“‘It’s worth noting, by the way, that there’s an enormous amount of data coming from all of these SpaceX launches,'” West said. “While the data can benefit NASA, we believe care should be taken not to be overwhelmed with too much data.”
In February, NASA ordered three more crew rotation missions from SpaceX, adding to the six flights of the initial commercial crew contract. Once Starliner is operational, NASA wants to alternate crew rotations every six months between Boeing and SpaceX, offering each supplier one NASA astronaut flight per year.
West added that SpaceX plans to eventually launch the massive next-generation Starship rocket, currently under development in South Texas, from Kennedy Space Center, which could pose a risk to the Falcon 9 launch facility. and Dragon at pad 39A.
“One possible option that has been identified for the Starship launch is from a planned new facility within the physical boundaries around pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, from where the Dragons are launching,” West said. “There are obvious safety concerns about launching the large, and as yet unproven, spacecraft in such close proximity, apparently only about 300 meters or so, to another pad, not to mention the path so vital to the spacecraft program. ‘trade crew.’
Pad 39A is also the only launch facility currently capable of launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, needed to carry heavier military spacecraft from NASA and the United States into orbit.
The Starship and its gigantic Super Heavy booster stage combine to reach almost 120 meters in height. The system is designed to be fully reusable, and SpaceX plans to vertically land the Starship booster and upper stage at the launch site.
SpaceX is completing work on a Starship launch pad in South Texas, but the Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s operations at the site before issuing a commercial launch license for the first full Starship orbital test flight .
NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract last year to develop a version of the Starship vehicle to land astronauts on the moon.
“In conclusion, I would just like to say that these are extremely complex times for CCP,” West said, referring to NASA’s commercial crew program. “As the Starship launch site shows, there are many external but related considerations to take into account. One thing that remains clear, however, is that getting to the point where NASA has two viable CCP vendors is still very important.
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