NASA, Boeing Prepare to Replace Starliner Service Modules Ahead of Upcoming Orbital Flight Test-2

Starliner technicians work on the Orbital Flight Test-2 spacecraft in the high bay of Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 13, 2022.
Starliner technicians work on the Orbital Flight Test-2 spacecraft in the high bay of Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Jan. 13, 2022.

NASA and Boeing continue making progress toward the agency’s upcoming Starliner Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Teams recently completed offloading fuel from the OFT-2 spacecraft inside Starliner’s production factory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida in preparation for separating and replacing the current service module (SM2) from the crew module.

“The Starliner team and successful completion of the spacecraft’s development phase are critical to sustaining International Space Station operations through 2030,” said Steve Stich, manager, NASA Commercial Crew Program. “The team’s dedication to developing effective remedies and corrective action after our first OFT-2 launch attempt demonstrates their continued commitment to safely flying NASA crews for years to come.”

In December, Boeing decided to move up service modules currently in production for its upcoming uncrewed and crewed flight tests. The service module originally planned for the Crew Flight Test (CFT) is now being used for OFT-2, and the service module originally planned for Starliner’s first post-certification mission, Starliner-1, now will  be used for CFT.

 With fuel offload complete, the spacecraft was moved out of the hazardous processing area and into the production factory high bay.

“Because this is not an operation that we normally perform, our team took the time to fully coordinate and assess the proper spacecraft and ground support equipment configurations, and then execute to plan to ensure the safety of our team,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program.

Once separated in the coming weeks from the OFT-2 crew module, SM2 will be sent to NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico for additional testing related to the issue affecting the spacecraft’s oxidizer isolation valves.

The investigation into the valve issue continues to substantiate that the most probable cause is interaction of moisture with nitrogen tetroxide that permeates through the Teflon seal in the valve, leading to corrosion. Testing continues to fully understand how this occurrence affects the valves in various environments.

Tests include environmental seal evaluation and exposing valves, in a controlled setting, to temperatures and conditions similar to those the spacecraft experienced prior to the planned launch of OFT-2. The results of these tests will help in the ongoing development of remediation efforts to prevent similar issues on future service modules.

For example, the team designed a purging system that will be integrated into the spacecraft to protect the valves from potential exposure to moisture at the factory, launch complex, and launch pad.

Progress also continues with production of the new service module (SM4) that will go onto the OFT-2 crew module. That service module was recently moved from the low bay production area to the factory’s hazardous processing area for high pressure leak testing. Remaining tasks before mating this service module with the OFT-2 crew module include acceptance testing, final wire harness mating, installation of solar array panels, and final closeouts.

NASA and Boeing continue to work toward an opening in United Launch Alliance’s launch window availability in May for OFT-2. An actual launch date will be determined closer to spacecraft readiness, and with consideration of Eastern Range and International Space Station availability. Potential launch windows for CFT are under review and will be determined after a safe and successful OFT-2.

More details about the mission and NASA’s commercial crew program can be found by following the commercial crew blog, @commercial_crew and commercial crew on Facebook.

NASA Satellites Launch Aboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne

Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA's 29th ELaNa mission.
Cornell University students work with the Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), a CubeSat that is part of NASA’s 29th ELaNa mission. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket detached from the company’s CosmicGirl aircraft at approximately 5:53 p.m. EST (2:53 p.m. PST) on Jan. 13, 2022,  launching NASA’s 29th Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) mission and the 13th CubeSat in the TechEdSat series. This launch, also known as STP-27VPB, lifted off at approximately 4:39 p.m. EST (1:39 p.m. PST) from Mojave Air and Space Port, California.

Cornell’s Pathfinder for Autonomous Navigation (PAN), the 29th ELaNa mission, will launch two small research satellites known as CubeSats to low-Earth orbit to demonstrate autonomous rendezvous at a low cost. PAN is the first CubeSat mission to attempt docking between two CubeSats and will represent one of the most advanced autonomous CubeSat systems that has flown to date.

CubeSats are a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites, built to standard units, or “U,”  of 4 inches cubed. Often included as secondary payloads, CubeSats can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size, typically weighing less than 3 pounds per unit and designed to carry out unique tasks once deployed into low-Earth orbit.

The PAN CubeSats, each measuring approximately 8 inches x 12 inches, feature a cold gas propulsion system, reaction wheel-based attitude control, and GPS navigation. A few months after launch, the satellites will match each other’s orbits and rendezvous to demonstrate future capabilities for on-orbit assembly.

The nanosatellites will use carrier-differential GPS to autonomously conduct rendezvous and docking operations. This method allows position measurement accurate to within several centimeters. If successful, the technology demonstrated by PAN will reduce the mass and complexity associated with traditional rendezvous and docking systems.

PAN was selected through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) and assigned to this mission by the agency’s Launch Services Program (LSP) based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. CSLI enables the launch of CubeSat projects designed, built, and operated by students, teachers, faculty, NASA centers, and nonprofit organizations. Managed by LSP, ELaNa missions provide a deployment opportunity or ride-share launches to space for the selected CubeSats.

The TechEdSat-13 team prepares the spacecraft for flight at Virgin Orbit’s payload processing facility in Long Beach, California. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit

TechEdSat-13, from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, is a 3U nanosatellite that carries a unique artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML) module featuring the first orbital flight of a neuromorphic processor. This processor, the Intel Loihi, permits fast and efficient execution of AI/ML algorithms through a unique architecture that, in some ways, mimics the human brain.

In addition, there is a unique exo-atmospheric brake that will help rapidly de-orbit this and future nanosatellites. With this exo-brake technology, TechEdSat-13 will help address the accumulation and efficient disposal of orbital debris. This effort also helps to set the stage for autonomous navigation for nanosatellites to drop from orbit and reach their planned destination on Earth.

The TechEdSat flight series involves university interns and early career aerospace professionals. TechEdSat-13 was funded by various research groups within NASA, and the neuromorphic processor was provided by the Air Force Research Laboratory  Information Directorate.

Kennedy Pushes the Boundaries of Innovation During Employee Event

Kennedy Space Center innovator Sherry O'Brien
Sherry O’Brien proudly displays her first-place check in the No Cost Proposal Awards category from Kennedy Space Center’s Innovation Without Boundaries competition. Photo credit: NASA

Eleven Kennedy Space Center employees in two different categories were selected as winners in the 2021 KSC Innovation Without Boundaries competition. Winning proposals spanned a wide range of topics, including cryogenic fixtures, multi-chargers for emergency communications, and a space chili challenge.

“It was amazing to see the passion the employees have,” said Innovation Lead Hetal Miranda. “Their creative ideas are inspiring innovation at KSC.”

Kennedy Space center innovator Jaime Toro Medina
Kennedy Space Center engineer Jaime Toro Medina poses with his first-place check from the Innovation Without Boundaries Award event. Photo credit: NASA

Sponsored by Kennedy chief technologist Kathy Loftin, the Innovation Without Boundaries campaign is in its third year. The competition took place in person at Kennedy in 2018 and 2019 and was held virtually in 2021 due to concerns with COVID-19. Presentations were made in November and winners were announced in December.

Kennedy Space Center innovator Nicolas Donahue
Nicolas Donahue stands in front of Kennedy’s Vehicle Assembly Building with his second-place award. Photo credit: NASA

The event featured six winners in the “No Cost Proposal Awards” category (ideas that could make a significant impact with little-to-no associated cost needed to implement) and five winners in the “Small Project Award” category (ideas that would require funding up to $20,000). Contestants made presentations before a panel of judges, who were permitted time to ask questions about the proposals. Judges made recommendations to the chief technologist, who made the final determinations.

 

Here are the winners in the No Cost Proposal Awards category:

  • First place, tie: Jaime Toro Medina (NASA Engineering) – KSC National Instrument Center of Excellence
  • First place, tie: Sherry O’Brien (TOSC contract) – Scanning part tags used for flight processing into Solumina
  • Second place, tie: Ian Rook (NASA Engineering) – Adjustable window frame prototype for optical testing
  • Second place, tie: Nicolas Donahue (TOSC contract) – Cryogenic valve tuning fixtures
  • Third place, tie: Athela Frandsen (NASA Engineering) – Multi-chargers for sustained communications during emergency lockdowns
  • Third place, tie: Kimberly Phillips (KLXS III contract) – Program model number tool upgrade

Here are the winners in the Small Project Awards category:

  • Jacob Torres (LASSO contract) – Space chili grow a pepper plant challenge
  • David Miranda (NASA Exploration Research and Technology) – Remote collaboration tool
  • James Mantovani (NASA Exploration Research and Technology) – Advanced lunar array for regolith monitoring validation in the SwampWorks GMRO Lab BP-1 Test Facility
  • Thomas “Trey” Barnes (NASA Engineering) – Increasing capability of chemical analysis via sorbent pen technology
  • Misle Tessema (NASA Engineering) – Method development for determining wide range of low allow steel chemistry

“We want to encourage our KSC workforce – both civil servants and contractors – to be innovative with ideas that could not only impact their organizations, but KSC and NASA,” Hetal Miranda said. “Our goal is to continue to provide opportunities to bring these ideas forward through future Innovation Without Boundaries calls.”