Atlas V completes SAA milestones in preparation for crewed launches

by Chris Bergin

The famous Atlas rocket continues to show it’s ready to once again launch humans into space, following the completion of NASA’s Space Act Agreement (SAA) milestones. Although the Atlas V is still in a competition to launch US astronauts, this latest milestone “establishes a technical foundation for potentially certifying its Atlas V rocket” as a human-rated launch vehicle.

Atlas V Human Rating:

The Atlas V has an esteemed history, including launching astronauts during the early days of the space program. 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.

While its more recent history – as the Atlas V – has enjoyed a near-flawless record in lofting payloads that have included national security spacecraft uphill, its ambitions to once again launch biological cargo has only become a real possibility in the last few years.

Plans were afoot to provide Atlas V as the crew transport via an agreement between Lockheed Martin, SpaceDev and Bigelow Aerospace in 2006, at a time certain leaders at NASA embarrassingly claimed the rocket suffered from an Achilles’ heel relating to “Black Zones” – a key concern for safely aborting during ascent.

With those claims fully dismissed, and NASA’s need to find a domestic launch vehicle capable of regaining American independence for its astronauts since the premature end of the Shuttle Program, two rockets are leading the way towards winning a contract to remove the requirement of hitching rides on the Russian Soyuz in order to get to destinations such as the International Space Station.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon combination are arguably leading the race, with the duo already into Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) operations, ahead of Dragon’s outfitting into a crew-capable spacecraft.

They are one of the three winners of the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) award, aimed at providing US crew launch capability to the ISS by the middle of this decade. The other two winners are both aiming to fly on the Atlas V – namely Boeing and their CST-100 spacecraft, and Dream Chaser, currently being tested by Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC).

Atlas V leads the way in flight experience, but has yet to launch with either of its crewed spacecraft companions. Those first test flights are also at risk of never occurring for political and funding reasons.

While the desired scenario would be to have both Falcon 9 and Atlas V launching crewed vehicles, in turn providing redundancy and schedule protection in the event of mishap – such as one more serious than the engine shutdown on the latest Falcon 9 launchsome lawmakers want an immediate down-select to just one vehicle combination.

This request is believed to be related to the protection of funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) – NASA’s new Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) that some NASA leaders have been targeting as the source for additional commercial crew funding, following recent cuts.

SLS is currently scheduled to launch in 2017, but recently started to show signs it will slip into 2018 – even at this early stage of development – after a core stage design issue was revealed. (Info restricted to L2 at this time, LINK).

In order to pass the NASA requirements to launch CST-100 and/or Dream Chaser, the Atlas V – under the control of the United Launch Alliance (ULA) – has undergone a set of milestones to understand its design risks, its capabilities, how it can be used within the context of flying NASA crew and maturing designs for the Emergency Detection System (EDS), launch vehicle processing and launch architectures under a crewed configuration.

With an unfunded SAA allowing ULA to work with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to establish an Atlas V system baseline compliance with NASA Crew Transportation System (CTS) requirements and processes, ULA announced on Monday that they had completed the fifth and final milestone for its Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) phase.

“The ULA team did an outstanding job outlining how it plans to integrate its launch vehicle with completely different spacecraft designs,” said Ed Mango, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager.

“We commend ULA for taking on the challenge of human spaceflight, and we look forward to learning more about their innovative and cost-saving solutions as we continue to move forward in developing a crew transportation capability for America.”

ULA’s obligations included; continuing to advance the Atlas V CTS concept, including design maturation and analyses. Conduct ULA program reviews as planned, Perform a Design Equivalency Review (DER). Develop Hazard Analyses unique for human spaceflight. Develop a Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA). Document Atlas V CTS certification baseline. Conduct Systems Requirements Review (SRR).

ULA established requirements for its dual-engine Centaur configuration and selected the design approaches it would take for accommodating a spacecraft and its crew at the company’s launch facility in Florida, Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

However, a key element of the work was on the Emergency Detection System (EDS) that will teach the Atlas V to monitor critical launch vehicle and spacecraft systems and issue status, providing warning and abort commands to crew during their mission to low Earth orbit.

The resulting Hazard, System Safety and Probabilistic Risk Assessment detailed how ULA’s Atlas V rocket launch system hardware would ensure crew safety during launch and ascent.

“This has been a tremendous team effort between NASA, ULA and our commercial crew partners and we have made a great deal of progress toward safe, affordable human spaceflight,” noted George Sowers, ULA’s vice president of human launch services.

“This baseline will be used by both Boeing and SNC as they proceed into the CCiCap phase, providing them with the confidence that the flight-proven Atlas V will be ready to safely, reliably and cost-effectively launch.”

(Images via L2’s Commercial Crew section, with additional images via ULA and SNC.)

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