NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX, made significant strides in 2017 to return human spaceflight to the United States. Each company continued to develop and test unique space systems to fly astronauts for the agency to and from the International Space Station. Both companies are targeting flight tests in 2018.
Here’s the 2017 year in review:
Crew Rotation Missions Secured NASA’s Commercial Crew Program started the year by securing an additional four crew rotation missions from Boeing and SpaceX. The missions will carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station through 2024. The four additional missions fall under the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts and bring the total number of crew rotation missions awarded to each provider to six. The missions will fly following NASA certification.
To meet NASA’s requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station. Two of those demonstrations are uncrewed flight tests, known as Orbital Flight Test for Boeing, and Demonstration Mission 1 for SpaceX. After the uncrewed flight tests, each company will carry out a flight test with crew prior to being certified by NASA for crew rotation missions.
The Crew NASA’s four astronauts training to fly the test flights on Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spent time evaluating both providers’ progress during 2017. The astronauts are learning about the systems, being fitted for spacesuits and readying for flight tests to and from the International Space Station.
The International Space Station The International Space Station continued to prepare for the new commercial spacecraft to arrive. During Orbital ATK’s resupply mission to the space station in November, the cargo spacecraft maneuvered above the Harmony module prior to its release. There, it gathered data relevant to future rendezvous and docking operations for U.S. commercial crew vehicles that will be arriving for a linkup to Harmony’s international docking adapters. Other work included the space station crew installing and performing check-outs of a control panel on Harmony for the docking adapter.
Boeing on Tuesday unveiled its clean-floor facility that serves as the hub for its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft as they are manufactured and prepared for flight to and from the International Space Station, and where they’ll refurbished between missions. The high bay in the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, formerly known as Orbiter Processing Facility 3, is now modernized and ready to support the Starliner program.
It was once filled with about 1,000 tons of steel work platforms that enshrouded the space shuttle orbiters as they were refurbished and prepared for flight. Today, the facility contains several pieces of hardware and a mock-up that are key to Boeing’s and NASA’s efforts to launch astronauts from Florida’s Space Coast through the Commercial Crew Program.
Removing hundreds of thousands of pounds of steel and adding robust, new fixtures, SpaceX is steadily transforming Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for use as a launch pad for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The launchers will lift numerous payloads into orbit, including the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft with astronauts aboard bound for the International Space Station.
A horizontal integration facility was built at the base of the pad and rails installed running up the incline to the flame trench. Instead of arriving to the pad on the back of the crawler-transporters, SpaceX rockets will roll on a custom-built transporter-erector that will carry them up the hill and then stand the rocket up for liftoff. The fixed service structure at the pad deck will remain, although more than 500,000 pounds of steel has already been removed from it. SpaceX has already started removing the rotating service structure, which is attached to the fixed structure. Built for the need to load a shuttle’s cargo bay at the pad, it does not serve a purpose for Falcon launchers whose payloads are mounted on the top of the rocket.
SpaceX leased the historic launch pad from NASA in April 2014 and has been steadily remaking it from a space shuttle launch facility into one suited for the needs of the Falcon rockets and their payloads. It is the same launch pad where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins lifted off on July 16, 1969, to begin their Apollo 11 flight that would make history as the first to land people on the moon. Almost all signs of Apollo-era hardware were removed from the launch pad when it was rebuilt for the shuttle. Photos by NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program astronauts work side-by-side with Boeing and SpaceX engineers to evaluate their systems and trainers as they each prepare to return launches to the International Space Station from American soil. They have performed fit checks in mockup spacecraft, assessed the spacecraft’s display panel and controls among numerous other systems. http://go.nasa.gov/1tuHinI
Manufacturing bays and launch pads are scenes of careful activity midway through 2016 as Boeing and SpaceX, partners with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, build the prototype spacecraft that will precede assembly of the flight vehicles that will perform test flights. Both companies are building separate spacecraft and launch systems capable of carrying astronauts some 250 miles into space where they will perform groundbreaking research aboard the International Space Station. Boeing’s Starliner is being assembled at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, while SpaceX is manufacturing its Crew Dragon spacecraft at the company’s headquarters and factory in Hawthorne, California.
Both companies are also hard at work modifying their respective launch pads. SpaceX is making numerous changes at Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy so the former shuttle launch pad can instead host Falcon 9 rockets lofting Crew Dragons into orbit. A couple of miles south, at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the Crew Access Tower has been constructed at Space Launch Complex 41, so astronauts will be able to climb inside the Starliner on launch day as it stands pointed to the sky atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Read more about the progress under way in commercial crew so far in 2016: http://go.nasa.gov/1TZLGAW
The last major element of a test version of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner arrived at the company’s spacecraft factory at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin assembly. The upper dome of the craft the company is calling Spacecraft 1 rolled through the doors of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy on May 20 so engineers and technicians could begin outfitting it with systems before joining the upper dome to the docking hatch and lower dome elements that arrived earlier in May. The spacecraft’s arrival points toward a time when the company routinely produces and launches Starliners on operational missions taking astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Machined into a honeycomb pattern to reduce weight while maintaining strength, the upper and lower domes will form the crew compartment of the Starliner once assembled together. Thermal shielding will encase the domes on the outside and a base heat shield will be connected to the bottom to complete the spacecraft ahead of its pad abort flight test. That flight test will not carry people, but will include an attached service module holding propellant and supply tanks along with four powerful launch abort engines. The test will be an automated demonstration of the launch escape system’s ability of to lift the Starliner out of danger in the unlikely event of an emergency on the launch pad or during the climb into orbit.
The work is taking place as the Starliner’s structural test article – a complete Starliner spacecraft designed only for tests on Earth – finishes its assembly and is readied for shipping to California for analysis in conditions similar to those found in space. Read much more about the spacecraft’s arrival and its importance to NASA’s goals for the Commercial Crew Program and enhanced research on the space station: http://go.nasa.gov/1UtFLU4. Photo credit: NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis
The upper dome of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner is lowered onto the lower dome May 2, completing the first hull of the Starliner’s Structural Test Article. Identical to the operational Starliners Boeing plans to build and fly in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the Structural Test Article is not meant to ever fly in space but rather to prove the manufacturing methods and overall ability of the spacecraft to handle the demands of spaceflight carrying astronauts to the International Space Station.
The work was performed inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It is the first spacecraft to come together inside the former shuttle hangar since shuttle Discovery was moved out of the facility following its retirement and move to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., in 2012. You can watch Boeing’s video about the spacecraft’s manufacturing here.
Engineers and technicians gathered at dusk recently at a construction site near Kennedy Space Center in Florida to test systems that will support Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. The Crew Access Arm and White Room saw some of the most dynamic testing thus far, when hundreds of gallons of water were sprayed along the arm and beneath it for an evaluation of its water deluge system. The system is a key safety feature for future launches on the Starliner, one of two commercial spacecraft in development to carry astronauts to the station.
In the unlikely event of an emergency, astronauts ready to launch on future missions aboard the Starliner would need a clear, safe path to exit. The arm and attached white room will provide a bridge between the Crew Access Tower and the spacecraft, as it prepares to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.
Two rounds of testing in different lighting conditions checked whether the water system could cover the arm adequately and the LED lights were up to the task of helping guide astronauts to safety.
The test mimicked what the system would need to do at the launch pad in case of an emergency. The tower’s main structure is already standing at Space Launch Complex 41, the launch site for the Starliner. After more testing on other systems, the arm will be moved to the launch pad later this summer before being lifted into place on the tower.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight capabilities to the U.S. on commercial spacecraft. Boeing and SpaceX are developing separate spacecraft and launch systems along with a network of mission and ground support capabilities. Commercial crew flights will add an additional crew member to the station, effectively doubling the amount of time dedicated to research aboard the orbiting laboratory.
Before anything is visible to even the most discerning eye surveying the launch vehicle, computers and multitudes of sensors on the rocket can pick up minuscule problems and correct for them. Making sure they do so correctly is part of the work of Ian Kappes, lead of the launch vehicle avionics systems team for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
“The avionics systems and its software are the brain and central nervous system of the entire launch vehicle,” Kappes said. “It is really just like our body’s nervous system – avionics tells you all sorts of information about the vehicle. It’s making the decisions necessary to fly. The avionics is telling you when equipment is within its parameters or when something will fail. It is also cross-communicating between the booster stages and the spacecraft, because the spacecraft and its crew need to know what’s going on with the vehicle.”
Kappes’ team at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida works in tandem with engineers at the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Armstrong Flight Research Center in Mojave, California, to certify the systems Boeing and SpaceX plan to use for commercial crew flights to the station. That means many hours poring over avionics architecture designs, working directly with both partners to identify and control hazards, followed by avionics component and software integrated testing. Read the full story at http://go.nasa.gov/1pyBsQ2
More than five years of careful thought, in-depth planning and detailed refurbishments have set up Kennedy Space Center for diverse exploration missions that will push astronauts and robotic spacecraft into new areas of accomplishment, said, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center director, Bob Cabana at the National Space Club Florida Committee meeting today in Cape Canaveral.
“We’re not just making a difference for Kennedy or even the nation, we’ve got a meaningful mission and we are making a difference for all of humankind,” Cabana, a former astronaut, told the group of about 375 in attendance.
By focusing on piloted missions to the International Space Station using Commercial Crew Program spacecraft, followed by Space Launch System and Orion flight tests, Kennedy has established a ground support network of launch pads and associated infrastructure needed to support missions to Mars by astronauts in the future. All of this while maintaining the center’s unique ability to launch historic robotic exploration missions such as Osiris-Rex that will bring back a sample from an asteroid. Other flights in the future will continue to decipher the mysteries of Mars as well as taking close looks at other planetary networks in the solar system.
The center has seen complete upgrades in many areas including the Launch Control Center, Launch Complex 39B and modifications to the Mobile Launcher tailored to the needs of the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. Other facilities have been upgraded for commercial partners. The center’s new headquarters campus is under construction to deliver an environmentally friendly, energy efficient structure.
“Our future is absolutely outstanding,” Cabana said. “I believe the years we have ahead of us will be our best ever.”