NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is actively preparing for a return to human spaceflight, with Boeing and SpaceX uncrewed flight tests, followed by crew flight tests and missions.
When our astronauts arrive before their missions, they will spend eight to nine days quarantined in astronaut crew quarters. The crew quarters occupies about 26,000 square feet of the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building at Kennedy. Access is restricted to this area, which features 23 bedrooms — each with a bathroom — and the iconic suit room, where astronauts are helped into their pressure suits moments before boarding a vehicle to take them to the pad for launch.
A significant, recently completed upgrade will await the commercial crew astronauts when they arrive at Kennedy. There are new carpets and ceiling tiles, and fresh paint on the walls. Appliances all have been replaced, as has the audio/visual teleconference system in both conference rooms. The suit room, last used in an official capacity in July 2011 for STS-135, the final mission of the Space Shuttle Program, has been reactivated and remodeled. The area is furnished with new recliners and tables, and there are now three suit containment rooms — one each for Orion, Boeing and SpaceX.
NASA and commercial industry partners Boeing and SpaceX are making significant advances in preparing to launch our astronauts from U.S. soil for the first time since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from 2018 to this point.
On the International Space Station, the crew aboard continues preparations for new visiting spacecraft. In June, astronauts installed a high-definition camera to assist with the docking of Boeing and SpaceX’s capsules as they approach for docking.
Meanwhile, on the ground, significant progress continues to take place for Boeing and SpaceX in final preparations for flight testing. Both companies have several spacecraft and rockets in various stages of production. Teams have practiced interfacing with the spacecraft, and rehearsed launch countdown and landing procedures, as well as emergency scenarios both at the launch pad and in flight.
With the upcoming flights to begin from Boeing and SpaceX, final rounds of crew and mission support practice, qualification tests, and simulations of multiple mission scenarios, serve to bring us on the doorstep of America’s next great chapter in space flight.
In case you missed it, SpaceX recently completed its 16th parachute system test for the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
SpaceX conducted the test at Naval Air Facility El Centro in Southern California, deploying parachutes to slow the spacecraft for a safe landing in the desert. Crew Dragon is designed for water landings in a nominal scenario, but the test demonstrated the system’s ability to land the spacecraft safely in the unlikely event of a low altitude abort.
United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V dual engine Centaur (ULA) Crew Flight Test dual engine, at left, and the Orbital Flight test dual engine, at right, for the Centaur stage of the Atlas V rocket are in production on June 11, 2018, at ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will launch on its first uncrewed flight test on the ULA Atlas V rocket. The Starliner is being developed and manufactured in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight capabilities to the U.S.
Expedition 56 Commander Drew Feustel and Flight Engineer Ricky Arnold of NASA completed the sixth spacewalk at the International Space Station this year at 2:55 p.m. EDT, lasting 6 hours, 49 minutes. The two astronauts installed new high-definition cameras that will provide enhanced views during the final phase of approach and docking of the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner commercial crew spacecraft that will soon begin launching from American soil.
They also swapped a camera assembly on the starboard truss of the station, closed an aperture door on an external environmental imaging experiment outside the Japanese Kibo module, and completed two additional tasks to relocate a grapple bar to aid future spacewalkers and secured some gear associated with a spare cooling unit housed on the station’s truss.
Commercial Crew Program astronauts (left to right) Suni Williams, Eric Boe, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley visited Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) March 27. The astronauts toured the pad for an up-close look at preparations in work for the SpaceX Crew Dragon flight tests. The tower modifications, including the recent removal of the rotating service structure, are proof of progress in outfitting the pad for crew once again. Future integration of the crew access arm will allow for safe crew entry and exit from the spacecraft for launch and in the unlikely event of a pad abort scenario.
During their visit to KSC, the astronauts also stopped outside SpaceX’s processing hangar, adjacent to the launch pad and talked directly with SpaceX employees about their excitement as the program builds momentum. SpaceX and Boeing are working toward returning human space flight launches to the U.S. with flight tests targeted later this year.
As NASA, Boeing and SpaceX prepare for commercial human spaceflight launches, they are training for a variety of contingencies, including emergency water landings. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Landing and Recovery Team is leading a multi-agency operation to practice astronaut rescue missions.
Rescue and recovery involves meticulous planning and close coordination between NASA, the Department of Defense (DOD), and company recovery teams for Starliner and Crew Dragon. These are the spacecraft of Boeing and SpaceX that will fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station from U.S. soil. In the event of a variety of contingency landings, an elite team of pararescue specialists is prepared to rescue the crew anywhere in the world.
Kathleen O’Brady’s five-year-old son can name all of the planets in our solar system and even some nearby stars. Perhaps the brightest star he knows though is his mom. She is helping shape policy in the new era of commercial human spaceflight.
O’Brady plays a key role in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), which has partnered with Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station, and return them safely home. NASA is in the process of certifying two new crew transportation systems—Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon—at the same time. As a certification systems engineer in the program’s Systems Engineering and Integration Office at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, O’Brady was responsible for defining an integrated plan for certification which is being executed by both providers.
“I honestly loved it,” O’Brady said. “It’s like putting a puzzle together. Half the problem is trying to make sure you understand what all the pieces are, and then you start slowly integrating those pieces.”
Boeing and SpaceX are targeting test flights with crew on board for late this year. “We all have to do the job right,” O’Brady said. “We have a duty to return our astronauts to flight. We’re going to use these private companies and they’re going to do a fantastic job.”
Crew safety is paramount in the return of human spaceflight launches from Florida’s Space Coast, and the latest round of parachute testing is providing valuable data to help industry partners Boeing and SpaceX meet NASA’s requirements for certification.
On March 4, SpaceX performed its 14th overall parachute test supporting Crew Dragon development. During this test, a C-130 aircraft transported the parachute test vehicle, designed to achieve the maximum speeds that Crew Dragon could experience on reentry, over the Mojave Desert in Southern California and dropped the spacecraft from an altitude of 25,000 feet. In February, the first in a series of reliability tests of the Boeing flight drogue and main parachute system was conducted by releasing a long, dart-shaped test vehicle from a C-17 aircraft over Yuma, Arizona. Both tests resulted in successful touchdowns of the parachute systems.
SpaceX will conduct its next parachute system test in the coming weeks in the California desert, and Boeing is scheduled for its third of five planned qualification tests of its parachute system in May. Both providers’ parachute system qualification testing is scheduled to be completed by fall 2018. The partners are targeting the return of human spaceflight from Florida’s Space Coast this year, and are currently scheduled to begin flight tests late this summer.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and private industry partners, Boeing and SpaceX, continue to develop the systems that will return human spaceflight to the United States. Both commercial partners are undertaking considerable amounts of testing in 2018 to prove space system designs and the ability to meet NASA’s mission and safety requirement for regular crew flights to the International Space Station.
“The work Boeing and SpaceX are doing is incredible. They are manufacturing spaceflight hardware, performing really complicated testing and proving their systems to make sure we get it right.” said Kathy Lueders, program manager NASA Commercial Crew Program. “Getting it right is the most important thing.”
Both Boeing and SpaceX plan to fly test missions without crew to the space station prior to test flights with a crew onboard this year. After each company’s test flights, NASA will work to certify the systems and begin post-certification crew rotation missions. The current flight schedules for commercial crew systems provide about six months of margin to begin regular, post-certification crew rotation missions to the International Space Station before contracted flights on Soyuz flights end in fall 2019.
As part of the agency’s normal contingency planning, NASA is exploring multiple scenarios as the agency protects for potential schedule adjustments to ensure continued U.S. access to the space station. One option under consideration would extend the duration of upcoming flight tests with crew targeted for the end of 2018 on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon. The flights could be extended longer than the current two weeks planned for test flights, and likely less than a six-month full-duration mission. The agency also is assessing whether there is a need to add another NASA crew member on the flight tests.
This would not the first time NASA has expanded the scope of test flights. NASA had SpaceX carry cargo on its commercial demonstration flight to the International Space Station in 2012, which was not part of the original agreement. This decision allowed NASA to ensure the crew aboard the space station had the equipment, food and other supplies needed on the station after the end of the agency’s Space Shuttle Program.
As with all contingency plans, the options will receive a thorough review by the agency, including safety and engineering reviews. NASA will make a decision on these options within the next few months to begin training crews.