Members of NASA’s Independent Security Advisory Board warned the space agency on Thursday not to rush into a test flight of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft and expressed concern about the final certification of its Boeing capsule program and capsule.
Security advisers also said there were “obvious security concerns” about SpaceX’s plan to launch the giant Starship rocket from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the same facility used for crew missions to the International Space Station.
Boeing plans to reroute a test flight of the Starliner crew capsule with problems next week. The mission – called the Orbital Flight Test-2, or OFT-2 – will not carry astronauts. But if it goes well, the OFT-2 mission will pave the way for the next Starliner launch to transport a crew to the space station for a final demonstration mission – called the Crew Flight Test, or CFT – before NASA and Boeing announce new commercial vehicle ready for operation.
Developed in a public-private partnership, the Starliner spacecraft will give NASA a second human capsule capable of transporting astronauts to and from the space station, along with the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which was first launched by a crew in May 2020. .
With SpaceX now providing regular crew transport services to the space station, NASA officials had time to solve technical problems with the Starliner spacecraft. However, NASA is willing to have two crew transport providers to avoid relying on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut flights in the event that SpaceX has significant delays.
“The committee is pleased that there is no indication that there is any need to rush into CFTs,” said David West, a member of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee, at a public hearing on Thursday. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us (by NASA) is that the program will proceed to CFT when and only when it is ready. Of course, the best way for CFT will be a successful OFT-2 “.
NASA has signed a series of contracts with Boeing worth more than $ 5 billion since 2010 for development, test flights and Starliner operations. The contracts include agreements for six rotating crew flights to the space station – each with a crew of four – after completing the OFT-2 mission and the shortest crew flight test with astronauts on board.
But the Starliner program faced years of delays. Software problems prevented the spacecraft from mooring on the space station on the OFT-1 mission in 2019, forcing Boeing to make a second unmanned test flight at its own expense. The OFT-2 mission was on the launch pad last August, ready to take off over a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, when engineers noticed that 13 oxidation shut-off valves in the Starliner spacecraft propulsion system were stuck in the closed position.
After nine months of testing, research and switching to a new propulsion unit, Boeing transported the Starliner spacecraft back to the ULA rocket launcher on May 4 to soar over an Atlas 5 rocket ready for another launch. Read our previous story about valve repairs.
West said on Thursday that NASA executives had signed the correction of the oxidative valve for the OFT-2 mission, but noted that “there is some question about whether the valve will need to be redesigned for future flights after OFT-2.” He also said that the managers approved the “flight logic” for problems with a high-pressure locking valve in the propulsion system of the Starliner command unit, a separate issue from the oxidative valves in the service unit.
“There is also concern that the certification of Boeing parachutes is lagging behind,” West said.
He also noted “significant programmatic concern” with the limited number of human-assessed Atlas 5 missiles remaining in ULA stockpiles. The ULA has 24 more Atlas 5 rockets to fly before withdrawing the rocket in favor of the less expensive, more powerful Vulcan Centaur rocket.
Eight of these 24 rockets have already been deployed to the Starliner program, enough to meet Boeing’s conventional requirement of NASA, which includes two more test flights and six space station crew operational missions.
ULA’s new Vulcan rocket has not yet flown.
“Another factor is that the Vulcan launch vehicle that is going to replace the Atlas 5 for Starliner launches needs to be certified for human spaceflight, and the process of obtaining that certification can take years,” West said.
West, a longtime director of mechanical safety and director of testing at the Board of Certified Safety Professionals, said the general concerns about NASA’s workforce and contractors in the’s human spaceflight program were “of particular importance in the case of Boeing.”
“The committee noted that Boeing’s staffing levels appear to be particularly low,” West said. “The committee will monitor the situation in the near future to see what impact this may have on the existence or mitigation of any security risks.
“While we do not want to see and rush into launching CFTs unjustifiably, Boeing should ensure that all available resources are used to meet a reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays,” West lamented.
“We are definitely behind the idea of not launching until (it) is ready, until all the security is taken care of,” said Mark Sirangelo, another member of the security panel. “At the same time, if the delays are caused by a lack of resources applied to the program, it has significant implications or may have significant implications for NASA’s return to the moon program and many other things that happen. to get out of these delays. “
NASA and Boeing officials declined to set a timetable for the Crew Flight Test, saying only that preparations in the capsule for the first astronaut mission were well under way so the vehicle would be ready for launch by the end of this year. . The crew flight test schedule will largely depend on the outcome of the OFT-2 mission.
SpaceX, NASA’s other commercial crew contractor, has completed five crew launches for NASA, plus two exclusively private astronaut missions using the company’s Dragon spacecraft fleet.
Officials said last year that SpaceX would end production of new Dragon capsules after building four human assessment vehicles. The fourth and youngest member of the fleet launched for the first time last month. Each Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights and SpaceX and NASA could certify the capsule for additional missions.
“We are certainly concerned about whether the requirements for transporting astronauts to and from the ISS for the rest of its life, whatever it may be, can be met without additional Dragons,” West said. “It would be advisable to conduct parametric studies to inform and support relevant decisions on whether more Dragon capsules are required.
“The Dragon launch rate continues, however, and steps are being taken to keep the launch rate high,” West said. “Some of these measures may include postponing precautionary maintenance and reusing Dragon multiple times. “The commission will monitor closely to see if these measures can be implemented without increasing risk.
“It should be noted, by the way, that there is a huge amount of data coming out of all these SpaceX launches,” West said. “While data can benefit NASA, we believe we need to be careful not to be overwhelmed by too much data.”
In February, NASA ordered three more rotating crew missions from SpaceX, adding to the six flights of the original commercial crew contract. Once the Starliner is up and running, NASA wants to rotate the crew every six months between Boeing and SpaceX, giving each provider one NASA astronaut flight a year.
West added that SpaceX plans to finally launch the next-generation giant Starship rocket, which is being developed in South Texas by the Kennedy Space Center, could jeopardize the Falcon 9 and Dragon launch sites on pad 39A.
“One possible option identified for the Starship launch is from a planned new facility within physical limits around pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, from where the Dragons will be launched,” West said. “There are obvious safety concerns about launching the large, yet unproven, Starship at such close range, reportedly just about 300 yards from another location, let alone the track so vital to the commercial crew program.” .
The Pad 39A is also the only launch vehicle that can currently launch the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, which is needed to launch some of NASA and US heavier military spacecraft into orbit.
The Starship and the giant Super Heavy augmentation stage combine to be almost 400 feet (120 meters) high. The system is designed to be fully reusable and SpaceX intends to land the Starship Amplifier and the upper tier vertically back at the launch site.
SpaceX is completing work on a Starship launch pad in South Texas, but the Federal Aviation Administration is examining the environmental impact of SpaceX’s work on the site before issuing a commercial launch permit for the first complete Starship orbital test flight.
NASA awarded SpaceX a $ 2.9 billion contract last year to develop a version of the Starship spacecraft to land on the Moon.
“In closing, I would just like to say that these are extremely difficult times for the CCP,” West said, referring to NASA’s commercial crew program. “As the Starship launch site shows, there are a lot of external but relevant considerations that need to be made. One thing that is still clear, however, is that it is still very important to get to the point where NASA has two viable CCP providers. “
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