SpaceX and Boeing in home stretch for Commercial Crew readiness

by Chris Gebhardt

With just one year to go until the scheduled completion of all uncrewed and crewed test flights for SpaceX and Boeing’s commercial crew transportation services, the NASA Advisory Council recently held a routine review of the technical, hardware, software, and training progress the two companies are making toward the goal of returning the capability to launch people into space from the United States.

General Commercial Crew update:

At the end of July, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) held a standard, two-day series of meetings with various NASA Directorates, gaining input and insight into the agency’s continued work across a variety of fields.

In specific regard to Commercial Crew, NASA’s Deputy Manager for Commercial Crew, Steve Stitch, updated NAC members on the general progress of SpaceX and Boeing toward next year’s inaugural crew flights of their respective vehicles.

In terms of significant pre-flight milestones still on the books for both SpaceX and Boeing are the in-flight abort test for SpaceX and the pad abort test for Boeing.

Mr. Stitch noted that Boeing’s pad abort test is slated for February 2018 with SpaceX’s in-flight abort test scheduled for April 2018.

This would place the notional schedule of events for Commercial Crew next year as follows:
February – Boeing: pad abort test
February – SpaceX: Demo 1 (uncrewed) test flight of Dragon 2
April – SpaceX: in-flight abort test
June – Boeing: Orbital Flight Test (OFT – uncrewed) of Starliner
June – SpaceX: Demo 2 (crewed) test flight of Dragon 2
August – Boeing: Crewed Flight Test (CFT) of Starliner

2015-06-10-014231Additionally, with all 12 (six for each provider) of the Post Certification Missions (PCMs) for the six month crew rotations now awarded, Mr. Stitch noted that Boeing’s first two PCMs are in work and that all of the milestones are completed for PCM 1 and half for PCM 2.

Mr. Stitch did not provide an update on where PCM planning stood with SpaceX.

Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to do before the commencement of commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station.

As Mr. Stitch noted to the NAC, “In terms of overall progress, we’ve made a lot of headway in delivering water recovery trainers for both partners, and both providers continue to work through a lot of critical testing of hardware.

“We are really in the middle of qualification of both spacecraft and also for the Falcon 9 Block 5 launch vehicle.  And so we’re really in that hard part of development where you start to see lots of problems, but the contractors are showing a lot of promise working through those.”

Mr. Stitch also noted that teams are busy working to clear items from the hazards list for the overall commercial crew program – including but not limited to the issue of closing the LOC (Loss Of Crew) gap with both providers.

“Inability to meet the LOC gap continues to be a concern, and we continue to work with the partners on how to reduce that.  Had a discussion with the ASAP recently with the LOC strategy and the numbers there,” stated Mr. Stitch.

2015-06-10-014319Notably, given the NAC’s involvement and review beyond these regularly scheduled public meetings, there was no follow-on discussion or questions regarding the LOC gap posed by members of the NAC – indicating that work to close and/or disposition the LOC gap is proceeding to the NAC’s recommendations and NASA’s safety standards.

Additionally, Mr. Stitch went into great detail regarding Search & Rescue (S&R) in the event of a pad or in-flight abort.

“Search-and-rescue posture has been one of our top risks, and we’ve worked on that very hard for the last six months.  We now have the recovery trainers in place, and we’re starting to work with the various rescue jumpers on how they’re going to do that training.”

A key element here is the budget allocated to S&R, as NASA is responsible for the coordination and cost of such efforts with the 88th Rescue Squadron while SpaceX and Boeing participate to some degree.

“We have delivered the rescue trainers, and we’ve completed a rescue trainer test with SpaceX in the Banana River.  We had the 88th Rescue Squadron, and they were doing basic procedures of how they would approach a capsule and how they would have people get inside and how to get flotation power established,” noted Mr. Stitch.

“This was a training to develop the procedures for how to go do all of that.”

Moreover, Mr. Stitch noted that while a large portion of the risk for this had been the delivery of the trainers for both Dragon and Starliner capsules (a risk eliminated by the delivery of those trainers), there is an ongoing disagreement about the number of calendar months required to properly train rescue forces for each vehicle.

“We’re still converging on [the training timeline],” stated Mr. Stitch.  “I think now that we have the trainers in place, we’ve actually taken a risk asset out and done some training.  And we can bring the schedule together to do some more training as early as August.  

“We are still tracking this in our risk system, but we’re making progress.”

Boeing – CST-100 Starliner:

Under the list of recent accomplishments for Boeing, a slew of hardware deliveries to NASA and various test centers around the country all mark promising milestones for the overall OFT and CFT launch schedules.

A new article for parachute testing has been delivered to NASA that will be part of a parachute drop test in September to study off nominal chute deployment and landing operations as well as serve as the first time heat shield deployment will be tested in a flight environment.

Moreover, Boeing has delivered a mock-up trainer of Starliner to building 9 at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), and testing of Starliner’s Structural Test Article (STA) has made significant progress in Huntington Beach, California.

For the STA, Mr. Stitch noted that forward heat shield shock test has been completed.  The forward heat shield must jettison from Starliner so the drogue and main parachutes can deploy.

Both the jettisoning of the forward heat shield and deployment of the chutes create a shock as mortars fire to carry out both sequences; thus, the STA has been invaluable in concretely defining the shock environment’s effect on the overall Starliner structure.

Moreover, testing of the Starliner Service Module (SM) and Crew Module (CM) separation system to better understand how the complicated mechanism that has to sever lines and split the two spacecraft apart operates in various temperature extremes is also underway at Huntington.

On the other coast, Starliner spacecraft production is proceeding.  Spacecraft 1, which will be used for the pad abort test next year, is ready for upper and lower dome mate and leak checks.

The Service Module Hot Fire Test article (SMHFT) has been powered up in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center.  The SMHFT will soon be shipped to White Sands for thruster testing and validation of the SM’s propulsion systems.

2016-05-12-182150“In terms of production and qualification, a lot of work is transpiring at the C3PF,” noted Mr. Stitch.  “They have three full spacecraft in flow, but they’be spent a lot of time with the SMHFT article and assembling that test article.

“A lot of emphasis has been put on that because it needs to go to White Sands.  There are also two other service modules that need to get built up.  And many of the components for both of those are actually at KSC now.”

Some testing of the SMHFT article has already occurred at Kennedy, notably leak checks of the SMHFT article’s propulsion system.  Those tests have taken place behind the C3PF, where Boeing has built their hazardous processing facility.

“That area is where a lot of testing has been occurring for the SMHFT article,” noted Mr. Stitch.  “They are in the process of doing a lot of checks and have been working through those in the last month and also testing all of the avionics and flight harnesses for the test article.”

In addition to serving as a test area for the SMHFT article, the hazardous processing facility is where Boeing plans to load and offload reactants into and out of the Service Module and the Crew Module for flight operations.

But that’s not the only major event that has recently taken place at the C3PF.

Spacecraft 1 recently underwent a software test where the craft was powered up and data flowed from the craft at KSC to JSC in Houston, Texas.

“We’ve been working a lot trying to connect the avionics lab out at Sonny Carter with the Boeing facility at the C3PF,” noted Mr. Stitch.  “We have done several tests of the fiber optic connections, the idea [being] that you don’t have to move the hardware back and forth [every time you want to] see how the spacecraft talks to the ISS flight computers.”
Additionally, Boeing and NASA have completed the first single string software docked “talk” test between Starliner and ISS.

The test was positive, and a second test later this summer will use all three strings of the software system to ensure full communication between the two crafts once they’re docked.

Additionally, Boeing has also delivered the Starliner mission simulator to Building 5 at JSC and has completed several simulations for various phases of flight as they move toward wringing out the final bugs from Starliner’s software.

The simulator “uses a real fight software, so it’s a good way to start to understand the procedure development, how the crew displays will work, and really wring out the flight software and understand that,” stated Mr. Stitch.  “About every week there is some kind of run that our joint testing has been supporting along with the crew over in Building 5.”

In terms of Starliner’s ride, ULA (United Launch Alliance) and Boeing have conducted an Emergency Detection System (EDS) integrated abort test.

[The EDS] is probably one of the newest things on the Atlas vehicle for Boeing,” noted Mr. Stitch.  “This is the system that looks at rates and pressures on the vehicle to determine when an abort should occur during ascent if needed.”

Moreover, build of the Atlas V core booster, AV-80, and the dual engine Centaur upper stage for the OFT mission in June next year have begun at ULA’s Decatur, Alabama, facility near Huntsville.

Also in terms of the Atlas V, the new aeroskirt design has completed its CDR (Critical Design Review) and has one more wind tunnel test slated for later this year.

The CDR was “a very big milestone,” noted Mr. Stitch.  “Once we had the aerodynamic issues solved, we had to get into the design and how we would lay out the skirt and how there are a few panels that will blow out to allow the launch abort engines to fire.”

SpaceX’s crewed Dragons readying for life:

While a vast majority of the work SpaceX plans to perform on LC-39A in the coming months is dedicated to preparing the pad for the inaugural launch of the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket (currently targeted for NET (No Earlier Than) November), there are other elements of the pad that still need work for Commercial Crew.

Most notably, this involves the installation of the new Crew Access Arm at the top of Pad-A’s Fixed Service Structure (FSS).

The crew arm – that has already been built and is in a facility near the HIF (Horizontal Integration Facility) at LC-39A’s perimeter – will be installed later this year under the current schedule, possibly at the same time the pad is taken offline to prepare for Falcon Heavy.

“SpaceX has delivered [the Crew Access Arm] hardware and checked it out and will install it after they get SLC-40 back up,” noted Mr. Stitch.  “So right now they’re launching off of 39A, and once they get 40 back up and operational, they’ll find a window to go install this out at pad 39A.”

Installation of the arm was preceded this summer by work to raise the height of the pad’s lightning mast and add additional catenary wires that will channel the energy of a direct lightning strike to the mast safely away from a rocket and the pad’s critical systems.

During the lead up to the Bulgariasat mission in June,’s Brady Kennison captured photos of the work on the lightning mast – all of which are available to view on L2.

Mr. Stitch notes that this work is now complete and that the mast and pad’s lightning protection system upgrades are complete and ready for Crew Access Arm installation.

Moreso, SpaceX’s impressive cadence off 39A – eight flights over 20 weeks before the range stand down in July, average of one flight every 2.5 weeks – has provided “good run time on the pad and understanding of how the pad works in terms of communicating with the spacecraft and the launch vehicle, how the hold down system works, how the Transporter/Erector works, and sort of wringing out the pad in prep for our flights,” noted Mr. Stitch.

In terms of mission training, Mr. Stitch told the NAC members that multiple “human in the loop” simulations have occurred with crew in the Dragon simulator in Hawthorne.  A full up mission simulation, where the Dragon simulator was remotely hooked up to Houston with data flow between the two, has also been completed – a critical step toward the upcoming integrated mission sims.

For the still outstanding major milestones, a critical test toward crewed Dragon flights is final testing of the SuperDraco engines at McGregor.

2015-05-06-142758The SuperDracos will be responsible for pulling Dragon away from a Falcon 9 in the event a pad or in-flight abort becomes necessary.

SpaceX completed their pad abort test of the SuperDracos in May 2015.  For the upcoming tests, SpaceX is building a propulsion module validation article complete with SuperDraco engines and the Reaction Control Draco jets.

These tests are slated for completion in March 2018 – just one month before the company’s in-flight abort test, a test that is optional and not a mandated part of the Commercial Crew contract from NASA.

The in-flight abort will involve a Dragon 2 capsule launching on top of a fully fueled Falcon 9 rocket with the in-flight abort triggered when the vehicle reaches MaxQ – the moment of maximum mechanical stress on the rocket and capsule.

2016-06-23-002835Originally, the in-flight abort test was to occur from Vandenberg using a three-engine variant of the Falcon rocket and the same Dragon 2 mock-up used for the 2015 pad abort test; however, as the Falcon 9 and Dragon 2 have now evolved significantly since those plans were created, that particular test scenario has been scrapped.

The in-flight abort test is now targeted to launch from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center using a Falcon 9 rocket and the same functional Dragon 2 capsule that will fly the uncrewed Demo-1 mission two months prior in February 2018.

As the Demo-1 vehicle’s launch date approaches, that vehicle is continuing through its build process, as is the Demo 2 vehicle and four other Dragon 2 capsules for the first four Post Certification Missions – all according to Mr. Stitch.

Those six Dragon builds are in addition to the Dragon 2 qualification unit that has already been taken through structural testing – testing that revealed an excellent match between the computer models and the actual Dragon 2 performance.

For Demo-1, that Dragon has progressed through section integration and installation of its propulsion system, including the main propulsion tanks and prop lines.

Moreover, the Demo-1 Dragon’s pressure vessel has completed leak and pressure checks on all “penetration” points.

For the Demo-2 Dragon, the first to carry crew, Mr. Stitch noted that the module has completed painting and is ready for section integration.

The first PCM mission, referred to by SpaceX as Crew 1, that Dragon’s forward and aft bulkheads have been manufactured and are ready for welding.

Meanwhile, Dragon 2 parachute testing is on-going, with the next test scheduled for the mid- to late-August timeframe.

Importantly, SpaceX has also been busy conducting detailed tests with the Demo-2 crew on the company’s launch and entry suits.

According to Mr. Stitch, “SpaceX in particular has done a lot of fit checks with the crew.  Their suit is a little bit more customized for each crew member, and so they have done pressurized tests with the crew and lots of fit checks and mobility checks as well to understand exactly how the suit works.”

Moreover, Dragon 2 and its associated systems aren’t the only elements in flow for the February Demo-1 mission.

SpaceX is also working toward final implementation of the upgraded Merlin 1D and MVac engines and all of the other “100 or so” associated Falcon 9 upgrades needed to meet NASA’s human-rating requirements/requests for the Falcon 9.

“For Falcon 9 and the Block 5 configuration, both the first stage Merlin 1D engines and the MVac engine on the second stage are into testing and have completed a number of runs with development engines out at McGregor to get ready for the Block 5 configuration that we’ll fly crew on,” notes Mr. Stitch.

The Falcon 9 Block 5 (a name that isn’t official, with Elon Musk preferring to call it Falcon 9 2.5 if anything), is currently planned to debut in its fully integrated form on the Demo-1 launch.

As a stepping stone to the Block 5, the Falcon 9 Block 4 – which carries some but not all of the Block 5 upgrades including some incremental upgrades, like increased engine thrust – will debut next week on the CRS-12 launch, which is currently planned for Monday, 14 August at an instantaneous launch time of 12:32 EDT.

(Images: SpaceX, Boeing, L2 imagery, Brady Kennison for, and L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (Falcon Heavy to Dragon to Starliner, MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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