ULA to use their experience to build a culture of Atlas V crew safety

by Chris Bergin

With the two of the three Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) funding initiatives awarded to vehicles that will ride on the Atlas V rocket, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are preparing to return to human launch activities, with a focus on utilizing the mission safety they already provide for their launches of multi-million dollar spacecraft.

Atlas V and Human Space Flight:

The Atlas V first flew in August 2002, under the operation of International Launch Services, carrying a payload for Eutelsat’s Hot Bird 6 satellite (which has since been renamed Hot Bird 13A).

However, the vehicle has a rich history ranging back to the early days of US space flight. It was an Atlas booster that launched John Glenn into space inside Friendship 7 in 1962, sending the first American into orbit around the planet.

The vehicle continued to evolve, gaining upper stages – first with the Agena, followed by the Centaur – as the vehicle was entrusted with a range of high profile missions, such as the Mariner Program spacecraft to Mars.

The booster itself continued to advance over the years, via the Atlas II and Atlas III ranges, prior to the debut of the Atlas V, and a subsequent flight history of successful launches, that recently saw the highly reliable vehicle mark its tenth anniversary.

This latest era has seen it entrusted to launching spacecraft ranging from commercial satellites to national defence spacecraft, and also flagship missions, such as the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) now making a highly successful name for itself on the surface of Mars.

Those missions will continue, at the same time as Atlas V takes aim on the next chapter of its famous history, this time returning to the mission of launching biological payloads in the form of NASA astronauts destined for the International Space Station (ISS).

Top of NASA’s priority list is to regain independence from Russia, lost since the retirement of the Shuttle fleet last year. However, such a drive will not be to the detriment of safety, with all the commercial partners having to adhere to strict NASA rules and guidelines.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) are fully aware of this, using both their current experience in providing mission success for their lifeless – yet hugely expensive – passengers, in tandem with additional safety fail-safes.

“One of the challenges facing ULA as we get into human spaceflight is building a culture of safety to the same level of rigor we currently treat mission success,” noted Dr George Sowers, ULA VP for Human Launch Services, during a Q&A session with NASASpaceFlight.com members.

“We are in the process of establishing an internal safety organization with independent reporting, but more important is to instil the idea that safety is everyone’s responsibility.

“As to the specific process of how safety issues are handled, that will be worked out in conjunction with the prime contractors (e.g. BA and SNC) in conjunction with NASA during CCiCap. NASA’s 1100 series requirements provide a lot of guidance.”

Per the progression to the CCiCap stage of the commercial crew drive, ULA’s Atlas V is the confirmed launch vehicle of choice for Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceplane and Boeing’s CST-100 capsule.

While the level of funding over the coming years will be the ultimate driver as to when both vehicles will be ready to finally ride uphill, Dr Sowers noted ULA will be in a position to provide the first human rated Atlas V’s for a test launch as early as late 2015, again based on required funding.

Notably, the Atlas V does not require a large amount of modifications to be able to launch humans, with early claims that it would suffer from the abort restriction of “Black Zones” during evaluations into the Shuttle’s successor, immediately denied by Lockheed Martin sources and once again by Dr Sowers during the Q&A.

“It was never a real problem,” Dr Sowers added. “A trajectory has to be designed from the beginning to close black zones, but that’s a fairly standard process.”

In fact, the bulk of the work relates to the implementation of an Emergency Detection System (EDS), a system ULA have been working on under a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA.

“NASA’s assistance during the SAA was invaluable,” added Dr Sowers. “We also profited by the direct and frequent interaction with NASA HSF experts. The limitation of the SAA was the inability of NASA to provide any formal feedback on the acceptability of our proposed approaches.”

While an EDS is required for the safety of the crew, the essence of the Atlas V will be the same vehicle that launches with its current range of payloads. However, the task is to educate the vehicle to remember its new payloads will be humans, that it has to prioritize their safety, but not to the point it panics itself into aborting.

“We are trying to change the launch ops as little as possible while accommodating crew. Flight ops does require a bit of adjustment. For example, today’s flight software is designed to always keep trying (to reach orbit) no matter what the vehicle is doing around it. With crew, the software mind set has to change to ‘save the crew first’,” Dr Sowers explained.

“The trick is eliminating false aborts (really minimizing), while ensuring every flight failure is survivable (really maximizing). In safety speak, minimize LOC (Loss Of Crew) without increasing LOM (Loss Of Mission).”

Further articles in this series will be published over the coming weeks.

(Images via ULA, SNC, Boeing and L2 – via the impressive DC section, *L2 members click here*)

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