NASA Safety Panel: Don’t Rush To Crewed Test Flight as Boeing Prepares OFT-2

NASA Safety Panel: Don’t Rush To Crewed Test Flight as Boeing Prepares OFT-2

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel cautioned against any rush to launch the Crewed Flight Test of Boeing’s Starliner commercial crew spacecraft after the uncrewed test, OFT-2, scheduled for next week. A “tremendous amount of work” remains to be done between the two tests including determining if the propulsion valves must be redesigned. ASAP also is keeping an eye on International Space Station safety including the spacesuits astronauts wear to work outside as well as NASA’s plans for Human Landing Systems to get astronauts back on the Moon.

ASAP chair Patricia Sanders noted that this quarterly meeting is the first time the panel has gotten together in person since COVID disrupted life everywhere. They met at Kennedy Space Center and got a first-hand look at the Artemis I rocket, which is waiting to roll back out to the launch pad for another attempt at the Wet Dress Rehearsal. The panel seemed pleased overall with how the Artemis program is proceeding, but still “puzzled” by how the program is structured at NASA Headquarters, splitting accountability between two Mission Directorates. They will continue to observe how that plays out.

Next up at KSC is not Artemis I, however, but the third attempt at Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) of its Starliner spacecraft, built as a competitor to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The first try in December 2019 launched and landed safely, but suffered software and communications problems that could have been “catastrophic.” Boeing decided to redo the uncrewed test flight before putting people on board. Last August, OFT-2 was on the launch pad ready to go, but scrubbed about two hours before launch when 13 propulsion valves did not open. Boeing now is ready to try again on May 19.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule before being covered by a protective tent after landing at White Sands, NM, December 22, 2019 following the partially successful Orbital Flight Test. Screengrab.

If all goes well this time, the next step will be the Crew Flight Test (CFT) with at least two astronauts on board. Both OFT-2 and CFT are steps towards winning certification by NASA for operational launches to and from the ISS.

NASA and Boeing insist they will not set a date for CFT until they’ve had time to analyze the results of OFT-2, but suggest the end of this year is a notional timeframe.

ASAP wants to be sure they take the time needed. ASAP member David West cited a “concern that the certification of Boeing parachutes is lagging behind” and the “heavy task load required just to jump from an uncrewed to a crewed flight” as part of the “tremendous  amount of work” to be done. He added the panel is “pleased that from all indications” there’s no “rush to CFT.”

West also mentioned the question of whether the propulsion valves that failed last August need to be redesigned.

During a media teleconference last night after completion of the OFT-2 Launch Readiness Review, Boeing’s Vice President and Program Manager for the Commercial Crew Program, Mark Nappi, said a redesign “is definitely on the table.” A decision will not be made until after OFT-2 and other tests are completed. Boeing is confident the mitigation steps they’ve taken for OFT-2 will work this time, but not whether that is a long-term solution.

For all the caution about not rushing to CFT, West said ASAP also is concerned about the low level of staffing Boeing has on the project and the need to maintain a reasonable schedule.

“The panel has noted that Boeing staffing levels seem to be especially low. The panel will be monitoring the situation in the near future, see what impact, if any, this could have on the existence or mitigation of any safety risks. Plus, while we don’t want to see any undue rushing toward CFT launch, Boeing should ensure that all available resources are applied to meet a reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays.” — David West

Starliner is being developed as a public-private partnership under a fixed-price contract. Boeing must absorb the costs of this second Orbital Flight Test. The company has taken $595 million in charges against earnings so far.

A further concern is that Starliner uses the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to get to orbit, but Atlas Vs are being phased out. ULA is building a new rocket, Vulcan, that could see its first launch late this year, but must go through a “human-rating” certification process that West said “could take years” for Starliner.

The Starliner OFT-2 spacecraft atop its Atlas V rocket the day before its scheduled launch on August 3, 2021, which was scrubbed.

In a statement to, a ULA spokesperson said: “If our customer wants to fly Starliner on Vulcan Centaur, we would work through this process with Boeing and NASA. When we designed the Vulcan we designed it for future human certification and are in early discussions with our customer and NASA.”  Asked how many Atlas Vs are set aside for Starliner, the spokesperson said “All contracted crew launches are included in our Atlas V inventory” and “we have eight Atlas’ [sic] purchased for the Commercial Crew program.”

ASAP also has a few concerns about SpaceX’s plans for Crew Dragon.

The spacecraft are reusable. SpaceX has built four — Endeavour, Endurance, Freedom, and Resilience — and doesn’t plan to build any more as it focuses on the Starship program to take people and cargo not just to orbit, but to the Moon and Mars.

“We are definitely concerned” whether four capsules are sufficient to meet the needs of the ISS program especially considering the high launch rate, West said.

SpaceX has launched seven crewed missions in the past two years, five for NASA and two for commercial customers. ASAP is worried whether preventive maintenance is being deferred to maintain that launch rate. ASAP “will be watching closely.”

As for Starship, SpaceX plans to launch it from Boca Chica, TX, if it can win environmental approval, but KSC is an alternative. Musk said earlier this year he already has the environmental approvals he needs for a Starship launch pad there, but ASAP is concerned it is too close to Launch Complex 39-A, the launch pad for Crew Dragon.

“There are obvious safety concerns about launching a large and as yet unproven Starship in such close proximity, reportedly 300 yards or so, from another pad, let alone the pad so vitally necessary for the commercial crew program.” — David West

ASAP covered many other issues during its quarterly telecon. Susan Helms and Sandy Magnus, both former NASA astronauts, drew attention to the need to deal with the aging spacesuits used by the ISS astronauts. Although not as serious as a 2013 incident where ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano said he felt like “like a goldfish in a fishbowl,” another ESA astronaut, Matthias Maurer, experienced water in his helmet during a spacewalk in March.

The spacesuits, or Extravehicular Mobility Units (EMUs), are very old. Helms said the spacesuit Maurer used will be returned to Earth on the next SpaceX cargo mission to try and determine what happened.  For now, NASA astronauts cannot conduct spacewalks, or Extravehicular Activities (EVAs), unless it is urgent.

“Because NASA is thinking through its risk posture related to these suits, which are aging, the EMU is currently ‘no-go’ for planned EVAs, pending an investigation into what they discover with their latest testing that they plan to work. But should a contingency EVA be necessary, management is postured to perform an overall risk assessment to support a ‘go, no-go’ decision for a contingency EVA.” — Susan Helms

NASA is developing new spacesuits for the Artemis program for astronauts on the Moon.  Magnus said ASAP is glad the agency has established a formal program for lunar spacesuits, but doesn’t want NASA to lose focus on the ISS spacesuits.

“For some time the hardware has been talking to us and the panel continues to emphasize the need to replace these suits. And so … looking at the lunar suits is a priority, [but] they should not neglect the criticality of addressing the ISS suit issue and make appropriate plans for that as this program unfolds.”  — Sandy Magnus

On another point, Helms reported that while they detected no safety issues associated with the recent ISS visit of the first U.S.-sponsored Private Astronaut Mission (PAM), Axiom-1, they are concerned about the “larger than expected impact on the daily workload of the professional” crew members.

Axiom-1 was comprised of four men, three of whom paid a reported $55 million each for a 10-day spaceflight, eight on them on the ISS. The fourth was an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut with extensive experience on the ISS. They conducted about 25 scientific experiments during their trip. Weather conditions forced them to delay their return to Earth and they actually spent 15 days on the ISS.

Helms said PAMs do offer opportuities for NASA, including by increasing the amount of science conducted on the ISS and having additional capacity to return cargo to Earth. But there also was “an opportunity cost in the form of overly stressing the workload of the onboard ISS members and the mission controllers who support them on the ground.” ASAP wants future PAMs to be more tightly integrated with the planning processes for the professional crew.

Magnus reported on the Artemis program. She expressed the panel’s reservations about the Human Landing System (HLS) program to develop landers to take astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface and back.

Artist’s illustration of SpaceX’s Starship on the lunar surface. Credit: SpaceX

NASA is not building HLS systems itself, but using the same public-private partnership model as the commercial crew program, buying services from companies that develop and own the hardware. The idea was that like commercial cargo and commercial crew there would be at least two competitors, but at the moment NASA has a contract only with SpaceX to build one HLS for the first return to the Moon by American astronauts in 2025. The agency has another competition underway for an additional contractor for future landings, but nothing is settled yet.

ASAP is concerned about NASA’s decision to procure HLS as a services contract. Magnus differentiated the purchase of services for transportation to and from low Earth orbit (LEO) and for commercial space stations to succeed ISS from landers needed for astronauts to get to and from the Moon.

“Unlike commercial crew services to LEO, where decades of engineering and operational knowledge are easily available and easily accessible … along with a broad understanding of the risk mitigation strategies, in contrast there is little information or experience based on the gotchas, for example, and best design and operational strategies to employ to minimize risk with respect to lunar landings. Basically the unknown-unknown space is much larger on this mission than we have performed for literally decades. — Sandy Magnus

NASA thinks it has enough experience now, she continued, but “the success of this approach relies heavily on the goodwill and transparency between the contractor and NASA and will require the mindfulness and constant vigilance” of the agency.  “There are examples in the commercial crew program where this approach has worked” but also “examples where this approach has not been sufficient.”  Competition is key, and the panel doesn’t see that yet.


This article has been updated.

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