Commercial Crew providers making “significant progress” toward first flights

by Chris Gebhardt

As the mid-way point of 2017 arrives, both of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program service providers are making significant progress toward the first uncrewed test flights of their Dragon and Starliner capsules.  At their second quarter 2017 meeting, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel noted this progress while also discussing outstanding concerns regarding the program and vehicles as well as the positive steps being taken to address these matters.

Commercial Crew progress:

During last month’s NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) second quarter meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, the panel noted the “significant progress” both Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) providers are making toward their first uncrewed demo flights.

Currently, SpaceX is on track to be the first to perform their uncrewed flight, known as SpX Demo-1, with Dr. Donald McErlean reporting to the ASAP that the flight continues to target a launch later this year.

Currently, both NASA and SpaceX hold that SpX Demo-1 will fly by the end of the year – though L2 level KSC scheduling claims the mission has potentially slipped to March 2018.

Regardless, SpX Demo-1 will be followed – under the current plan – by Boeing’s uncrewed OFT (Orbital Flight Test) in mid-2018.

Notwithstanding the ultimate commencement of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) flight operations, the ASAP noted its concern and recommendations regarding CCP provider System Engineering & Integration (SE&I) process and controls.

In her opening statement to the meeting, Dr. Patricia Sanders, ASAP Chair, noted the two recent mishaps of commercial launch vehicles.

While one of those “two recent mishaps” is obviously the AMOS-6 conflagration of the Falcon 9 during Static Fire last year, what the second one is in reference to is somewhat nebulous – as “mishap” is not a word usually applied to situations that do not result in the loss of a vehicle.

Nonetheless, Dr. Sanders’ statement referenced both CCP providers, potentially pointing toward last year’s close call with the Atlas V during the OA-6 Cygnus launch or perhaps this year’s hydraulic issues as the second of the “two recent mishaps”.

2015-06-10-014319Specifically, Dr. Sanders’ noted that “In the case of two recent mishaps on commercial launch vehicles, the Panel believes that the underlying root causes could be traced to escapes on systems engineering and integration (SE&I) processes and controls,” states the minutes from the second quarter ASAP meeting.

To this end, the ASAP’s previously put forward a recommendation at a meeting in first quarter 2017 that NASA “require the commercial crew providers to produce verifiable evidence of the practice of rigorous, disciplined, and sustained SE&I principles in support of NASA certification and operation of commercial crew transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS).”

Based on the wording of the CCtCap contracts, both providers are allowed to utilize their corporate policies rather than NASA-traditional SE&I processes; however, the contracts also stipulate that NASA will confirm – through documentation, requirements verification, and deliverables – that both company’s have adhered to SE&I principles.

2015-06-10-014231Nonetheless, the ASAP “remains concerned.”

According to the minutes of Dr. Sanders’ remarks, “the ASAP remains concerned that no amount of insight or oversight by the CCP can ensure that the appropriate level of engineering discipline and control is employed unless the providers have internalized the need for it and made it an inherent part of their corporate culture.”

While each provider was not mentioned by name, the minutes reflect that “one provider has a history of employing rigorous SE&I practices.  However, they need to continue to ensure that these controls are not employed blindly but with an awareness of the rationale for doing so.

“The other provider has placed a value on agility and rapid problem solving with beneficial results.  They are also showing signs of evolving to reconcile their approach with the benefits and need for discipline and control.

“However, they need to ensure that the evolution reflects an inherent desire to adopt the tenets of systems engineering.”

Dr. Sanders’ opening statement closed with a reminder of an already-established ASAP recommendation that “Regardless of the methodology employed, both providers need to demonstrate that the proper controls are in place to ensure hardware is properly qualified, hazards are identified and appropriately mitigated, and the system is employed within the constraints of that qualification.”

2016-08-22-224421As the meeting progressed (which covered a wide-range of NASA-related programs), Dr. McErlean presented a dedicated Commercial Crew Program briefing.

A large portion of this section, unsurprisingly, focused on the LOC (Loss Of Crew) gap between what Dragon and Starliner are independently capable of providing v. what the CCtCap contracts require of them.

As previously reported by, the CCtCap contracts establish a minimum baseline requirement that Dragon and Starliner each meet a LOC criteria of 1 in 270 – meaning for every 270 flights, only one would result in an LOC event.

2016-06-23-002835Currently, there is a gap in what the data analysis shows both Starliner and Dragon are capable of providing and that 1 in 270 requirement.

While NASA has rightly not made the current LOC number for each vehicle public (as both providers are still working on this requirement), Kathy Lueders, NASA’s CCP manager, stated earlier this year to the NASA Advisory Council that “I will tell you that we are having a hard time getting to 1 in 270.  But we’re not done yet.”

While it might seem arbitrary, the 1 in 270 number is actually linked directly to the Space Shuttle.

At the end of the Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA determined the Shuttle to have an actual LOC number – based on all 135 flights – of 1 in 65.

This number was used as an initial benchmark by NASA, which decided that all U.S. crew vehicles – commercial or government – from 2011 onward should meet a safety factor 10 times that of Shuttle, or an LOC requirement of 1 in 650.

That was quickly determined to be completely unfeasible by all parties involved, and a new – obtainable – benchmark of 1 in 270 was set.

However, after NASA set this requirement and signed the CCtCap contracts with SpaceX and Boeing, more stringent MMOD (Micro Meteoroid Orbiting Debris) protection requirements were imposed on everyone (NASA included).

This new MMOD requirement has made it “challenging” to reach the 1 in 270 LOC benchmark.

At the NAC meeting in March, Ms. Lueders stated that SpaceX and Boeing were “still updating MMOD protection and a few other critical areas including looking at operational controls, and when we get through all that we’ll be in a better place to talk about our final LOC projection.”

At the ASAP meeting, Dr. McErlean reminded the panel that the LOC contract requirements were a recommendation of the ASAP and that the panel remains happy it was included because the requirement “appeared to drive systemic behavior by both providers … in making their systems substantially safer than they might have been without such an incentive and [that both providers] have achieved considerable progress from their initial LOC estimates.”

However, Dr. McErlean noted that “the threshold values [are] acknowledged to be challenging, and both providers are still striving to meet that precise number.”

From here, a discussion that NASA might have to accept the risk and/or that waivers might have to be processed if the LOC requirement can’t be met took center stage.

According to the ASAP meeting minutes, Dr. McErlean said that “While these LOC numbers were known to be challenging, and both providers have been working toward meeting the challenge, it is conceivable that in both cases the number may not be met.”

However, Dr. McErlean cautioned the ASAP and NASA about rushing to judgement on the current and whatever the final LOC number for each vehicle is.

“The ASAP is on record agreeing with the Program that one must be judicious in how one applies these statistical estimates.  In the case of LOC, the numbers themselves depend very heavily on the orbital debris model used to develop the risk to the system [as] orbital debris is a driving factor in determining the potential for LOC.

“The orbital debris models have been used and validated to some degree, but they are not perfect.

“One must be wary of being too pernicious in the application of a specific number and must look at whether the providers have expended the necessary efforts and engineering activity to make the systems as safe as they can and still perform the mission.”

To that last point, Dr. McErlean reported that both providers indeed “expended the necessary efforts and engineering activity to make the systems as safe as they can.”

Importantly, too, Dr. McErlean noted that there was no evidence that spending more money on closing the LOC gap for both providers “could [make] their systems considerably safer.”

The ASAP at large concurred with this finding and noted their pleasure at the progress made in closing the LOC gap for both Dragon and Starliner.

However, the panel did discuss the possible necessity “for NASA to do a formal risk acceptance of the variance from the requirement.”

To this point, the ASAP discussed a recommendation of how NASA would do this – including the need for a formal and “complete presentation of the alternatives and the consequences” as well as “the rationale for the path that [is] ultimately chosen” for risk acceptance before any such rationale is signed off on by the appropriate authority.

2016-05-12-182150In this case, Mr. John Frost noted that that authority is likely “at the highest levels of NASA.”

Importantly, though, the ASAP meeting wasn’t just focused on the panel’s concerns.  Considerable time was dedicated to a discussion and review of the progress both providers continue to make and where each provider is in terms of schedule milestones for their first uncrewed demo flights.

Presently, Boeing is moving through software release for Starliner, and the Starliner STA (Structural Test Article) is progressing through its test regime.

Meanwhile, the first Starliner spacecraft – the one that will fly the OFT mission next year – has undergone initial power activation, and the builds for Starliner spacecrafts two and three are progressing inside Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center.

For SpaceX, Dragon has completed its first pressurized space suit test and final assembly of the craft for SpX Demo-1 has begun – all while SLC-39A at Kennedy is undergoing final acceptance testing ahead of the upcoming installation of the Crew Access Arm onto the pad’s Fix Service Structure tower.

Moreover, the new, full-thrust (Block 5) Merlin 1D engines are in developmental hot fire testing at McGregor, and NASA has received the detailed CDR (Critical Design Review) of the engine for crew mission certification.

Finally, the ASAP noted that “Both providers have completed parachute testing for landings and are moving into production and qualification.”

Moreover, SpaceX and Boeing have implemented solutions to several issues flagged by NASA toward the end of last year, and very few new issues have been identified to date.

(Images: NASA, L2 Shuttle and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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