Crew Dragon Anomaly Not the Only Pacing Item for Commercial Crew Systems

Crew Dragon Anomaly Not the Only Pacing Item for Commercial Crew Systems

Saturday’s anomaly during testing of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon abort system is not the only pacing item for getting the commercial crew systems ready for operational flights.  NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) stressed during a meeting today that despite the successful uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s Demo-1 last month, both SpaceX and Boeing have a long way to go before their systems are ready for astronauts to climb aboard.  Separately, ASAP warned that NASA is taking too much risk with the aging spacesuits astronauts must use and next-generation suits are needed immediately.

According to ASAP, SpaceX is leading the investigation into the anomaly with “active NASA participation.” NASA and SpaceX have said little other than acknowledging that it happened and will not delay the upcoming launch of a cargo version of the spacecraft scheduled for next week, SpaceX CRS-17 (SpX-17).

The Demo-1 Crew Dragon capsule, which successfully returned from its flight to the International Space Station (ISS) last month, was undergoing a static fire test of its eight SuperDraco engines at SpaceX’s Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  They are integrated into the capsule and would be used to safely return the crew to Earth in the event of emergency during launch or ascent to orbit.  SpaceX conducted a test of the abort system on the launch pad in 2015 and is preparing for an in-flight abort test that was scheduled for June.

Whatever went wrong, the result was the cloud of orange smoke seen in this photograph tweeted by Florida Today’s Emre Kelly.

Complaints have arisen about what some perceive as a lack of transparency by SpaceX and NASA, but today ASAP chair Patricia Sanders urged that they be given the necessary time to determine the root cause. Right now, they are focused on “site saving, data collection and reduction, and development of the anomaly timeline,” she said.

Preserving the site is sufficiently important that SpaceX decided not to return the SpX-17 Falcon 9 first stage to LZ-1 as planned.  Instead, it will land on SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship off the coast of Florida.

Sanders said it will take time to find the answers and determine the schedule impact on the in-flight abort test and the crewed test flight, Demo-2, that was expected in July.

SpaceX and Boeing are each developing crew space transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS as public-private partnerships with NASA.  Boeing has not conducted any test flights yet and the dates recently slipped again.

Sandy Magnus, a former shuttle astronaut who is a member of ASAP, stressed today that the companies are not following the same development approaches so the “cadence and approach to the different test milestones are vastly different.”  Despite Demo-1’s success, there was a “large body of work yet to be completed” before SpaceX could launch Demo-2 even prior to Saturday’s anomaly.  Boeing is making progress addressing technical challenges with its Starliner capsule, but both companies “still have work in front of them before crew operations.”  The parachute systems for both vehicles were specifically cited.

Separately, Magnus and Susan Helms, another former astronaut who serves on ASAP, revisited the issue of the aging spacesuits being used by ISS astronauts.  They are almost 40 years old already, but NASA plans to continue using them until 2028.  The spacesuits are critical to sustaining ISS since the astronauts must replace systems on the exterior of the facility.

“We are growing increasingly concerned about the risk posture that NASA has adopted with the current suits. Therefore, we recommend that NASA begin an immediate transition to a next generation EVA suit system before the risk becomes unmanageable.” — Susan Helms, ASAP member

Another ASAP member added that the contractor base to supply components to repair the spacesuits is dwindling.

ASAP was created by Congress following the 1967 Apollo 204 fire that took the lives of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  It is a NASA advisory panel, but because of its origins, reports both to the NASA Administrator and Congress.  It advises NASA on anything affecting safety at the agency.

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