NASA security advisers raise concerns about Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Starship

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft landed under the parachute on December 22, 2019, following the completion of the Orbital Flight Test-1 mission. Credits: NASA/Aubrey Geminini

Members of NASA’s Independent Safety Advisory Board on Thursday warned the space agency against rushing into a test flight for the crew of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, and raised concerns about the parachute’s final capsule certification and levels. of Boeing staff in the program.

Security advisers also said there were “obvious security concerns” with SpaceX’s plan to launch its giant Starship rocket from Platform 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the same facility used for space missions. crew on the International Space Station.

Boeing plans to release a problematic replay of the Starliner crew module test flight next week. The mission – called Orbital Flight Test -2 or OFT -2 – will not take astronauts. But if all goes well, the OFT -2 mission will pave the way for the next Starliner launch to deliver a crew to the space station for a final demonstration mission – called the Crew Flight Test, or CFT – before the a new announcement by NASA and Boeing. Utility vehicle ready to run.

Developed through a public-private partnership, the Starliner spacecraft will provide NASA with a second human-rated capsule capable of transporting astronauts to and from the space station, as well as SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, launched with a crew for the first time in May. 2020.

With SpaceX now providing regular crew transportation services to the space station, NASA officials have had time to resolve technical issues with the Starliner spacecraft. However, NASA is keen to set up two crew transportation providers to avoid relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut flights if SpaceX experiences significant delays.

“The committee is pleased that, by all indications, there is no sense of the need to rush into terrorism funding,” said David West, a member of the space security advisory committee. aerial, at a public meeting on Thursday. “The view that continues to be expressed to us (from NASA) is that the program will move to CFT when, and when, they are ready. Of course, the best path for CFT is the success of OFT-2.»

NASA has signed a series of contracts with Boeing, worth more than $ 5 billion, since 2010 for Starliner development, test flights and operations. The contracts include agreements for six alternative crew flights to the space station-each with four crew-after the completion of the OFT-2 mission and the shorter crew flight test with astronauts on board. .

But the Starliner program is facing years of delay. Software issues prevented the spacecraft from docking with the space station during the OFT-1 mission in 2019, forcing Boeing to assemble a second uncrewed test flight at its own expense. The OFT-2 mission was on the launch pad in August, ready to take off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, when engineers noticed 13 oxidizer isolation valves in the Starliner spacecraft’s propulsion system stuck in the closed position.

After nine months of testing, investigation, and replacement for a new booster, Boeing returned the Starliner spacecraft to ULA’s rocket hangar on May 4 to raise it to an Atlas 5 rocket, ready to fly again at launch. Read our previous article on valve repair.

West said Thursday that NASA administrators have approved an oxidizer overhaul for the OFT-2 mission, but noted that “there are questions about whether the valve redesign is necessary for future flights after the OFT- 2 ″ .He also said that officials agreed to a ‘cause trip’ of high pressure shut-off valve issues in the propulsion system of the Starliner drive unit, a separate issue from the module’s oxidation valves.

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft was removed inside ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility on May 4 in preparation for the OFT-2 mission. The Starliner crew unit is at the top and the service unit is at the bottom. Credits: NASA/Frank Michaux

“There are also concerns that Boeing’s parachute certification is behind schedule,” West said.

He also mentioned “significant programmatic concern” with the limited number of Atlas 5 missiles with a human rating remaining in ULA’s inventory. The ULA has 24 additional Atlas 5 missiles to fly before the missile is pulled in favor of the cheaper and more powerful Vulcan Centaur.

Eight of those 24 rockets are already reserved for the Starliner program, enough to meet the requirements of NASA’s Boeing contract, which includes two more test flights and six operational crew missions to the space station.

ULA’s new Vulcan missile has not yet been launched.

“Another factor is that the Vulcan launcher that will replace the Atlas 5 launcher for the Starliner will need to be certified for human spaceflight, and the process of getting that certification could take many years,” West said.

Public concerns about NASA and contracted labor in the agency’s human spaceflight program “are of particular importance in the case of Boeing,” said West, a longtime executive. Technical Safety and Testing Director for the Council of Certified Safety Professionals.

“The committee noted that staff levels at Boeing seem to be particularly low,” West said. “The Committee will monitor the situation in the near future for its impact, if any, on the existence or mitigation of any security risk.

“While we don’t want to be seen and pushed unnecessarily towards the launch of the CFT, Boeing must ensure that all available resources are applied to meet the reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays,” lamented West. said.

“We’re definitely behind the idea of ​​not launching until (it’s) ready, until everything is taken care of by security,” said Mark Cirangelo, another member of the security committee. “At the same time, if the delays are due to a lack of resources applied to the program, it will have a major impact, or could have a major impact, on NASA’s schedule for the return to the Moon and many other things that are happening. to eliminate these delays.

NASA and Boeing officials declined to set a target schedule for testing the flight crew, saying only that capsule preparations for the astronaut’s first mission were on track for the craft. be ready for launch at the end of this year. The schedule for crew testing is largely dependent on the results of the OFT-2 mission.

An International Space Station astronaut took this March 30 photo of the Kennedy Space Center, showing Panel 39B at bottom right, Block 39A right above, and the Vehicle Assembly Building. North is below in this photo. credit: NASA

SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, has conducted five crew launches for NASA, as well as two all-private astronaut missions using the company’s Dragon spacecraft fleet.

Officials said last year that SpaceX would end production of the new Dragon capsules after building four human 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 can validate the capsule for additional missions.

“We are certainly concerned about whether the requirements for bringing astronauts to and from the International Space Station for any remaining lifespan can be met without any additional dragons,” West said. . “Parametric studies are recommended to inform and support relevant decisions about whether or not more Dragon capsules are needed.

“The Dragon’s fire rate is continuing, however, steps are being taken to keep the launch rate high,” West said. “Some of these measures may include postponing preventive maintenance and reusing Dragon multiple times. The committee will watch closely to see if these measures can be implemented without increasing risk.

“We have to keep in mind, by the way, that there’s a tremendous amount of data from all of these SpaceX launches,” West said. “While the data could benefit NASA, we believe precautions must be taken not to be overwhelmed by too much data.” Data. . »

In February, NASA ordered three more crew rotation missions from SpaceX, in addition to six flights under the commercial crew’s initial contract. Once the Starliner is operational, NASA wants to move the six-monthly crew rotation between Boeing and SpaceX, offering each supplier one NASA astronaut flight each year.

West added that SpaceX plans to launch a massive next -generation Starship rocket, currently under construction in South Texas, from the Kennedy Space Center, which could pose a threat to the Falcon 9 and Dragon launch facility on the platform. form 39A.

“A potential option identified for the Starship launch is from a planned new facility within the physical boundaries around Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, where the Dragons were launched,” West said. “There are obvious safety concerns regarding the launch of the large spacecraft, which have not yet been shown, in such proximity, only about 300 meters, from another platform, let alone the trajectory that is so important to the commercial crew program.»

The Pad 39A is the only launch facility currently capable of launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is essential for moving several NASA and U.S. military spacecraft into orbit.

The massive, very heavy spacecraft and booster stage were combined to reach nearly 120 meters in height. The system was designed to be fully reusable, and SpaceX planned to vertically place the powered Starship and upper stage at the launch site.

SpaceX is finishing work on its Starship launch pad in South Texas, but the FAA is evaluating the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s operations at the site before issuing a commercial launch license for the starship’s first full orbital spatial flight test .

NASA awarded SpaceX a $ 2.9 billion contract last year to build a version of the Starship spacecraft to land astronauts on the Moon.

“In conclusion, I just want to say that these are very complex times for the CCP,” West said, referring to NASA’s commercial crew program. “As the outgoing Starship launch website explains, there are many external but relevant considerations that must be considered. One thing that remains clear, however, is that it is still very important to get to the point where NASA has viable PCC suppliers. ».

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