Safety Panel impressed with challenged Exploration Program

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) have provided a report to NASA administrator Charlie Bolden stating they are impressed with the Agency’s work towards the opening missions for the Orion spacecraft. However, they admitted it is “challenged” by budget constraints.

ASAP Meeting:

The influential body – probably best known for taking a swipe at the Space Shuttle Program (SSP) during calls for an extension of the orbiter’s service life – are a naturally conservative organization.

Although their cautious – and sometimes frosty – attitude towards commercial crew has been thawing of late, the ASAP’s focus on crew safety ranges across all of NASA’s human space flight activities, including the test programs, such as Orion’s first trip into space during the Exploration Flight Test (EFT-1).

VAB with two vehicles, via L2With their opening meeting of 2013 hosted at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the panel were taken on a tour of the ongoing modifications to the spaceport, as it attempts to transition from Shuttle operations to a launch complex capable of hosting both government and commercial vehicles.

“Modifications to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) are in process and fixed decks are being replaced with moveable decks to deal with different types of boosters. This puts KSC in position to launch the next generation of launch systems,” reported the ASAP in a letter to General Bolden, dated February 11.

“The ground system development is ongoing – the processing facility, the VAB, the mobile launchers, etc.”

However, despite this future capability, KSC still only has one new launch vehicle as a confirmed tenant, the Space Launch System (SLS).

With only one Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) securing a commercial spacecraft – Boeing’s CST-100 at present – KSC is under pressure to find uses for its numerous facilities, with a recent report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) warning unused buildings at NASA facilities may have to be removed to save on costs.

Even the EFT-1 mission, scheduled for 2014, is only using part of KSC’s Operations & Checkout (O&C) building for Orion processing, ahead of its launch from next door’s Cape Canaveral on a Delta IV Heavy with a Delta Cyrogenic Second Stage (DCSS).

This Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) is also set to ride with Orion during its first two missions with the SLS, known as Exploration Mission -1 and -2 (EM-1, EM-2).

ICPS during EM-1Citing challenges, the ASAP noted concerns with the differences between the ICPS for the EFT-1 launch on the Delta IV-H and its two missions riding with the SLS – likely focused on the integration challenges for when the ICPS moves away from its parent launch vehicle to be part of the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV).

The biggest challenge is a more obvious concern, relating to the budget uncertainty between EFT-1 and EM-1.

“With regard to schedule, EFT-1 is on track. The highest risk item for EFT-1 is the booster, which has an interim cryogenic propulsion stage (ICPS) that will be different from EM-1,” added the ASAP meeting minutes. “The highest risk item for the program is the near-term budget for EM-1. It is not the total cost that is the problem, but the phasing of the expected funding.”

EFT-1 Mission, via L2EFT-1’s primary goal is to test Orion’s heat shield, the first high energy return of a spacecraft intended for human crews since the Apollo era.

EFT-1 is set to mimic a large part of the expected stresses Orion will endure when it completes Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) missions, with the results a major data point for Orion’s Critical Design Review (CDR) in 2015. The panel classed the heat shield testing as “the key technology driver.”

The panel’s discussions with the Exploration Systems team at KSC also confirmed they still need to find some mass savings, an ominous throwback to the Constellation Program (CxP) days, when engineers battled to shed mass off the Orion spacecraft, due to performance issues with the Ares 1 launch vehicle.

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The “mass control” effort is highly unlikely to be related to the Block 1 SLS – with its 70mT capability believed to be an underestimate of its actual performance – and more to do with Orion’s historical challenges with its own mass after launch and ahead of re-entry.

Rollercoaster EES for Pad 39B, via L2The ASAP also mentioned the ongoing evaluations into the Emergency Egress System (EES) as a technical concern.

“In terms of engineering, the two principal technical concerns are mass control (approximately 4000 to 5000 lbs. in the total system that they want to remove) and the pad emergency egress system,” continued the overview to General Bolden, which also praised the work that has taken place on Orion, despite over $1 billion being spent over the many years it has been in development.

“Mr. Daniel Dumbacher, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, started his briefing with an interesting point: the hardware for ESD, especially with regard to the Orion, goes back to 2008, e.g., the abort motor testing, the air-bag drop testing, etc. Most importantly, within the past year, NASA has had very successful Orion environmental and parachute testing.

“There has been a great deal of progress on this program that the ASAP feels is vital to the nation’s space interests.”

ASAP Chair, VADM (Ret.) Joseph Dyer, agreed that the program is challenged by the budget constraint, but remains impressed with the progress.

“Because ESD is “level funded,” this drives some constraints and inefficiencies and challenges the program team,” he noted. “Overall, they are doing very well and it is an impressive undertaking.”

(Images: L2 and NASA)

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