Next NASA Administrator Must Clear Commercial Crew

Both SpaceX and Boeing have slipped their launch dates for first crewed flights to the ISS, as a big decision awaits the next presidential administration on giving the green light.

This picture (see below) certainly is worth the proverbial thousand words. It is a screenshot of the Sept. 1 pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 as it was being fueled for a preflight launch test. Silhouetted against the flames is a $195 million Israeli communications satellite on its way to an explosion of its own when it hit the ground a half-second later.

The sudden on-pad blast, reportedly the first at Cape Canaveral before starting the engines since 1959, underscored the warning by a NASA advisory panel chaired by Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford against fueling launch vehicles with crews on top. It also highlights an early task facing the next NASA administrator—deciding whether the commercial crew vehicles NASA has spent billions to help develop are safe enough for human passengers.

In December 2015 the agency’s International Space Station (ISS) Advisory Committee questioned the SpaceX plan to have ISS crewmembers inside the company’s planned Dragon crew capsule while the Falcon 9 below it is filled with liquid oxygen for launch to the station.

“There is unanimous, and strong, feeling by the committee that scheduling the crew to be onboard the Dragon spacecraft prior to loading oxidizer into the rocket is contrary to booster safety criteria that has been in place for over 50 years, both in this country and internationally,” Stafford wrote in a letter to William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s human-spaceflight chief.

Of course, a Crew Dragon would be equipped with an abort system designed to push it away from a failing Falcon 9. SpaceX is investigating the cause of the latest blast, which followed a June 28, 2015, Falcon 9 failure in flight when the upper stage also exploded. Both mishaps were traced to the LOX tank helium pressurization system, although the root cause of the pad explosion has not been identified.

Nor is it clear, at least publicly, whether the Dragon abort system was designed to trip during fueling. Under NASA’s commercial crew development program, SpaceX is currently scheduled to fly its Falcon 9/Crew Dragon stack unmanned next August, and launch a crew to the ISS before the end of 2017. That certainly will not happen.

The company is due to update its official anticipated launch date any day now, and NASA doesn’t really expect SpaceX to begin commercial crew flights until 2018 at the earliest.

“[W]e anticipate additional schedule slippage and do not expect certified flights by SpaceX earlier than late 2018,” NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) stated in a report completed before the on-pad explosion and released the day it occurred.

Boeing, too, has slipped the first flights of its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle by six months, to new target dates of June 2018 for the unmanned mission and August 2018 for the flight to ISS with a crew. Under that schedule, the company still hopes to begin operational crew missions to the station in December 2018, according to John Mulholland, the company’s vice president and program manager for exploration commercial programs (AW&ST Oct. 24-Nov. 6, p. 62).

The Sept. 1 OIG report cites two factors in the continuing schedule slips for the commercial crew—one is the inevitable technical issues that arise in developing any kind of spacecraft, particularly one intended to carry humans. The other is “significant delays” at NASA in digesting and approving the “hazard reports” required of Boeing and SpaceX as they find potential safety issues with their vehicles.

Among the technical causes Mulholland cited for the delays at Boeing are a production flaw in the lower dome of the pressure shell for the first CST-100 that will carry a crew, and problems testing complex composite components for the capsule. At SpaceX, NASA must be assured that the cause of the on-pad explosion and its fix are well understood, a problem company founder Elon Musk has characterized as “the toughest puzzle” the company’s engineers have ever faced.

“The agency has a rigorous review process, which the program is working through with each commercial crew partner,” NASA says. “Consistent with that review process, NASA is continuing its evaluation of the SpaceX concept for fueling the Falcon 9 for commercial crew launches. The results of the company’s Sept. 1 mishap investigation will be incorporated into NASA’s evaluation.”

As of Sept. 1, OIG says NASA had spent $3.4 billion on the commercial crew vehicle development effort, which requires the companies to invest some of their funds as well. That is also exactly the amount the OIG analysts found the agency has spent buying seats for its astronauts on Russia’s Soyuz capsule, the only route to the ISS for humans since the space shuttle fleet was retired. In addition to providing human-launch redundancy for the space station, NASA and Congress want to restore U.S. human access to space with the commercial crew effort.

Russia has sold NASA enough seats to keep its astronauts flying through 2018. That is a potentially dangerous deadline for whoever President-elect Donald Trump chooses to lead NASA, because it exerts time pressure to start flying at least one of the new crew vehicles, a factor implicated in the loss of the space shuttle Columbia.

“Excessive focus on timeliness and schedule can result in reducing the overall safety of the system,” Gerstenmaier wrote in his response to the OIG findings, stressing that not all hazard reports can be resolved on a “path to timely resolution” that the inspector general recommended.

It will be up to the new administrator to weigh the details when the time comes, and decide if it is time to fly. 

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