Members of NASA’s Independent Safety Advisory Committee on Thursday warned the space agency against rushing into a test flight for the crew of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, and expressed concerns about the final certification of capsule parachutes and Boeing’s staffing levels in the program.
Safety advisors also said there were “clear safety concerns” about SpaceX’s plan to launch its giant Starship rocket from Platform 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the same facility used for crew missions to the International Space Station.
Boeing is planning to release a problematic test flight replay of the Starliner crew pod 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 carry a crew to the space station for one final demonstration mission – called the Crew Flight Test, or CFT – before the new NASA and Boeing announcement. Commercial vehicle ready for operation.
Developed in a public-private partnership, the Starliner spacecraft will give NASA a second human-classified capsule capable of carrying astronauts to and from the space station, along with SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which 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 have two crew transport providers in place to avoid reliance on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut flights should SpaceX suffer any major delays.
“The committee is pleased that from all indications there is no sense of the need to rush into terrorist financing,” David West, a member of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee, said at a public meeting on Thursday. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us (from NASA) is that the program will move to CFT when, and only when, they are ready. Of course, the best path for the CFT would be 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 alternating crew flights to the space station – each with a crew of four – after the completion of the OFT-2 mission and testing the crew’s shorter flight with astronauts on board.
But the Starliner program has faced years of delays. Software problems prevented the spacecraft from docking at the space station on 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 last 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, investigations, and a swap for a new thruster, Boeing moved the Starliner spacecraft back into ULA’s rocket hangar on May 4 to hoist it atop an Atlas 5 rocket, ready for liftoff again upon launch. Read our previous story on valve repair.
West said Thursday that NASA administrators have signed off on an oxidizer overhaul for the OFT-2 mission, but noted that “there are some questions about whether a redesign of the valve will be required for future flights after OFT-2.” He also said managers agreed on a “cause trip” of issues with the high-pressure shut-off valve in the Starliner drive unit’s propulsion system, an issue separate from the service module’s oxidizer valves.
“There is also concern that certification of Boeing’s parachutes is overdue,” West said.
He also noted “significant programmatic concern” with the limited number of human-classified Atlas 5 missiles remaining in ULA’s inventory. The ULA has an additional 24 Atlas 5 missiles to fly before the missile is towed in favor of the less expensive and more powerful Vulcan Centaur.
Eight of these 24 rockets are already for the Starliner program, enough to meet NASA’s contractual Boeing requirements, which include 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 launch vehicle scheduled to replace the Atlas 5 launch vehicle for the Starliner needs to be certified for human spaceflight, and the process of obtaining that certification could take years,” West said.
Public concerns about NASA and the contract workforce across the agency’s human spaceflight program are “particularly relevant in the case of Boeing,” West, longtime director of engineering safety and director of tests for the Council of Certified Safety Professionals, said.
“The committee has noted that staffing levels at Boeing appear to be particularly low,” West said. “The Committee will monitor the situation in the near future for the impact, if any, of this will have on the presence or mitigation of any safety risks.
“While we do not want to see and unnecessarily push toward the launch of the CFT, Boeing must ensure that all available resources are applied to meet the reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays,” said West grieving.
“We are definitely behind the idea of not launching until (it is) ready, until everything safety is taken care of,” said Mark Cirangelo, another member of the safety panel. “At the same time, if the delays are due to a lack of resources being applied to the program, that would have major impacts, or could have major impacts, on NASA’s schedule for returning to the Moon and many other things that are going on to get rid of those delays.”
NASA and Boeing officials declined to set a target timeline for flight crew testing, saying only that preparations on the capsule for astronaut’s first mission were on track to have the craft ready for launch by the end of this year. The crew’s test schedule will largely depend on the results of the OFT-2 mission.
SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, has completed five crew launches for NASA, as well as two entirely private astronaut missions using the company’s fleet of Dragon spacecraft.
Officials said last year that SpaceX would end production of the new Dragon capsules after building four human-grade vehicles. The fourth and newest member of the fleet was launched for the first time last month. Each Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights, and SpaceX and NASA can certify the capsule for additional missions.
“We are certainly concerned about whether the requirements to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station during its remaining life, whatever it may be, 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.
“Dragon’s firing rate continues, however, measures are being taken to keep the launch rate high,” West said. “Some of these measures may include postponing preventive maintenance and reusing the Dragon multiple times. The Commission will be watching closely to see if these measures can be implemented without increasing the risks.
“We should note, by the way, that there is a huge amount of data coming from all of these SpaceX launches,” West said. “While the data can benefit NASA, we believe care must be taken to avoid being overwhelmed by too much data.”
In February, NASA ordered three more crew rotation missions from SpaceX, in addition to the six flights under the original commercial crew contract. Once the Starliner is operational, NASA wants to switch crew rotations every six months between Boeing and SpaceX, giving each provider one NASA astronaut flight each year.
West added that SpaceX plans to launch a massive, next-generation Starship rocket, currently in development in South Texas, from the Kennedy Space Center that could pose a threat to the Falcon 9 and Dragon launch facility on Platform 39A.
“One potential option identified for launching the Starship is from a new facility planned within the physical boundaries around Platform 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, where Dragons are launched,” West said. “There are clear safety concerns about launching the large spacecraft, which has yet to be demonstrated, in such close proximity, only 300 yards or so, from another platform, not to mention the absolutely necessary trajectory for the commercial crew program.”
Pad 39A is also the only launch facility currently capable of launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which is essential to moving some of NASA and US military spacecraft into orbit.
The spacecraft and the massive, super-heavy booster stage combine to stand nearly 400 feet (120 meters) tall. The system is designed to be fully reusable, and SpaceX plans to vertically land its boosted Starship craft and upper stage back at the launch site.
SpaceX is ending work on its Starship launch pad in South Texas, but the FAA is reviewing the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s operations at the site before issuing a commercial launch license for the spacecraft’s first full orbital test flight.
NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract last year to develop a version of the Starship spacecraft to land astronauts on the Moon.
“In conclusion, I would just like to say that these are very complex times for CCP,” West said, referring to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “As the outgoing Starship launch website explains, there are many external but relevant considerations to consider. One thing that remains clear, though, is that it is still very important to get to the point where NASA has viable CCP providers.”
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