Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
The first unmanned test flights of the manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing are moving forward and appear to be on schedule.
Currently, SpaceX is on track to be the first to perform their uncrewed flight, known as SpX Demo-1, with Dr. Donald McErlean reporting to the ASAP that the flight continues to target a launch later this year. Currently, both NASA and SpaceX hold that SpX Demo-1 will fly by the end of the year – though L2 level KSC scheduling claims the mission has potentially slipped to March 2018.
Regardless, SpX Demo-1 will be followed – under the current plan – by Boeing’s uncrewed OFT (Orbital Flight Test) in mid-2018.
The article is worth a careful read, as it describes in detail the political and bureaucratic maneuverings that are taking place to get the NASA bureaucracy to accept the work being done by these two private companies. Make sure especially that you read the section about NASA’s desire that the vehicles meet an imaginary safety standard where they will only lose a crew once every 270 flights. The NASA bureaucracy has claimed for the last few years that neither spacecraft is meeting this requirement, but according to this article it appears they are finally also admitting that the requirement has really little basis in reality.
According to the ASAP [Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel] meeting minutes, Dr. McErlean said that “While these LOC [Loss of Crew] numbers were known to be challenging, and both providers have been working toward meeting the challenge, it is conceivable that in both cases the number may not be met.”
However, Dr. McErlean cautioned the ASAP and NASA about rushing to judgement on the current and whatever the final LOC number for each vehicle is. “The ASAP is on record agreeing with the Program that one must be judicious in how one applies these statistical estimates. In the case of LOC, the numbers themselves depend very heavily on the orbital debris model used to develop the risk to the system [as] orbital debris is a driving factor in determining the potential for LOC. The orbital debris models have been used and validated to some degree, but they are not perfect. One must be wary of being too pernicious in the application of a specific number and must look at whether the providers have expended the necessary efforts and engineering activity to make the systems as safe as they can and still perform the mission.”
To that last point, Dr. McErlean reported that both providers indeed “expended the necessary efforts and engineering activity to make the systems as safe as they can.” Importantly, too, Dr. McErlean noted that there was no evidence that spending more money on closing the LOC gap for both providers “could [make] their systems considerably safer.”
The ASAP at large concurred with this finding and noted their pleasure at the progress made in closing the LOC gap for both Dragon and Starliner. [emphasis mine]
In other words, NASA’s safety panel is eventually going to sign off, no matter what. Note also that the GAO’s earlier complaints about Boeing’s parachute testing program have now apparently vanished.