No Checkered Flag Yet, But Commercial Crew Getting Closer to Finish Line

No Checkered Flag Yet, But Commercial Crew Getting Closer to Finish Line

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken entered quarantine yesterday in preparation for their flight to the International Space Station (ISS) scheduled for May 27.  It will be a new era for NASA — the first launch of astronauts from American soil since 2011 and the first crewed flight in NASA’s effort to develop crew space transportation systems as public-private partnerships where it is just a customer, not the owner of those systems.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight, updated the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations committee today on the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing Starliner programs.  He was cautiously ebullient, pointing out again and again that SpaceX’s crewed flight test, Demo-2, is just 13 days away.

It will be a momentous milestone for the program, initiated by the Obama Administration as a follow-on to the commercial cargo program that resupplies the ISS using space transportation systems developed and owned by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.  Sierra Nevada Corporation will soon become a third provider.

Everything is on track for May 27, but he pointed out the date is not a sure bet.  “We’ve got a shot” at launching that day, but there still are items to close out, reviews to complete, and weather could always present a problem.

Only two astronauts will be aboard Crew Dragon, Hurley and Behnken, but for operational missions NASA will fill four seats.  The first operational flight, Crew-1, with three astronauts from NASA and one from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), is expected this fall, but the date is uncertain.

In fact, it is not even clear how long Hurley and Behnken will stay on ISS. McAlister reiterated what other NASA officials have been saying. The duration depends on a number of factors, including how much degradation is experienced by Crew Dragon’s solar arrays.  NASA hopes to keep Hurley and Behnken on ISS for at least one month and it could be as many as four (119 days to be exact) if the solar arrays perform as expected.  If they do not degrade as much as anticipated it could be longer.

Once Crew Dragon is docked to ISS, McAlister said they will put four crew members inside to see how they fit. That means a Russian cosmonaut will be among the occupants. The current ISS complement is one American (Chris Cassidy) and two Russians (Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Vagner).  NASA does, in fact, plan to fly Russian cosmonauts on these commercial crew systems, and continue launching Americans on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.  The ISS has a Russian segment and a U.S. segment (that includes modules built by Japan and Europe plus a Canadian robotic “arm”). NASA and Russia’s Roscosmos agree that it is essential to always have at least one American and one Russian on board to operate the facility and they need to be trained on each others spacecraft.

McAlister reviewed the four commercial crew flight tests over the past year: SpaceX’s uncrewed flight test (Demo-1) and In-Flight Abort test, and Boeing’s Pad Abort Test and uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT).

Images from SpaceX’s January 2020 In-Flight Abort test, from left to right showing the Falcon 9 rocket engines firing, then the Crew Dragon capsule separating from the rocket by firing its own SuperDraco abort engines and flying safely away from the Falcon 9, which later disintegrated as planned. Credit: NASA and SpaceX

Boeing’s December 2019 Starliner OFT did not go as planned, however, and the company has decided to refly that uncrewed test before putting astronauts aboard.  McAlister said there still is no date for that test or the crewed flight test.  Boeing and NASA formed an Independent Review Team (IRT) to investigate the problems, which could have ended in catastrophe. McAlister said the IRT identified more than 60 corrective actions Boeing must make and NASA will hold Boeing accountable for them.  NASA also is looking how it could have performed its role better.

He pushed back on reports that the commercial crew program is over cost, insisting that because they were firm fixed price contracts, the cost to the government was less than 5 percent more than anticipated.  The companies had to bear cost increases due to schedule delays, for example.

He did agree the systems are late.  If Demo-2 launches in May or June, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will be 37 months late, he said, and “we just have to own that,” but “we won’t sacrifice safety for schedule.”

Although the focus right now is on launching astronauts to satisfy NASA needs, the point of having a public private partnership was that NASA would be just one of many customers.  McAlister pointed out that two companies, Space Adventures and Axiom Space, have already signed deals with SpaceX to launch private astronauts. “This is the kind of outcome envisioned when we started” the commercial crew program.

Although everything is going pretty well right now, he was careful not to claim success.

“We’re not done yet and I’m not here to wave the checkered flag…. I don’t want to give anybody a false impression. We still have a lot of work to do certainly in the next two weeks, and then probably for many, many months after that. We are going to keep our eye on the ball and get this work done.” — Phil McAlister

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