First test launches of commercial manned vehicles upcoming


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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.

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5 comments

  • Edward

    From the article: “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.

    No one has yet made a manned space vehicle that matches a 270 flight safety record, because no one yet knows how to build such a safe spacecraft — even NASA — or if it has finally been figured out, we have yet to prove it. So far, the only vehicles that have not killed a crew in flight have flown a dozen or fewer crews to space. Even the Air Force’s X-15 spaceplane killed a crew during flight, and Apollo and SpaceShipTwo each killed a crew during test.

    When it first flew, NASA told us how amazingly safe the Space Shuttle was, but it turned out to be not so safe. It will take time, effort, and more lost lives in order to make spaceflight as safe as today’s commercial passenger aviation is for major US airlines. That’s the deal; that’s what it costs:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXbdJ3kyVyU(7 minutes, Bill Whittle: “The Deal”)

  • Anthony Domanico

    I was going to make the same point but you beat me to it, Edward. The Space Shuttle wouldn’t meet the LOC criteria that they are suggesting be imposed on the new capsules.

    One thing I just don’t understand is the notion that if NASA and the federal government aren’t looking over the shoulders of SpaceX, Boeing, Sierra Nevada, etc, they will cut corners and it will result in loss of life. I don’t work in the industry so I may be way off on this issue but I have faith in these companies. It’s in their best interest to make sure their vehicles are safe. They can’t make them as safe as possible because at some point the cost goes prohibitively high, so it’s a compromise. Like Dr. Zubrin says, if you are looking for the safest option, don’t go to space.

    Edward, how were you involved in the aerospace industry? I just read your reply regarding our conversation about Skylon competing with SpaceX and it sounded like you are possibly an engineer.

  • Edward

    Anthony Domanico wrote: “I don’t work in the industry so I may be way off on this issue but I have faith in these companies.

    The Whittle video to which I had linked mentions that US airlines had become amazingly safe. What Whittle didn’t mention was the history that drove the airlines and the aircraft manufacturers to achieve such safety.

    Back in the 1980s, the airline industry noticed that at the rate the industry was booming there would soon be a major airline crash on the front page every week, and that seemed unacceptable to them. So they took safety very seriously.

    Safety engineers realized that few accidents happen due to only one cause but do to a series of unfortunate events, so if they could stop any one of those events to occur, then an accident could be avoided. This led them to changing almost everything related to flying, from the interaction of the pilots with the craft, to maintenance, to operations in order to reduce the number of times that any one unfortunate event could occur.

    Although airliner safety is not perfect — a foreign airliner crashed spectacularly in San Francisco a few years ago — it is significantly better in the US than it was before.

    Leading factors to the San Francisco accident: the main ground-based landing system was down and a backup was being used; the pilot was on a familiarization flight into SFO with an instructor who knew the route; but most significantly, the pilot, co-pilot, and instructor all lost situational awareness of the state of the aircraft — which had dropped out of auto-landing mode. If either of the first two cases not been a factor, would the accident have happened? I don’t know; I haven’t read the accident report, but they may have contributed to distracting the pilots from realizing the aircraft was not under control.

    Anthony Domanico asked: “how were you involved in the aerospace industry?”

    Yes, I was a mechanical engineer. I started by designing, building, and testing science instruments for satellites, probes, the Shuttle, and the ISS, and I eventually assembled and tested satellites and satellite parts — especially commercial communications satellites.

  • Anthony Domanico

    Edward,

    I’m familiar with that line of thinking regarding the chain of events or circumstances that, individually probably wouldn’t result in a crash, but all combined in a series bad things happen. I’m a licensed airframe and power plant mechanic and many examples of that philosophy were shown to us in class. Tragic, but very fascinating.

    I’m not familiar with the specific accident you cited above, but it sounds like you may have been referring to an error with the glide slope system. It uses signals sent from the runway that are received by the aircraft’s glide slope antenna so that upon approach for a landing the aircraft and it’s pilots are aware if they are on a safe trajectory.

    I really want to return to school to get a degree in mechanical or aerospace engineering. I was in a bad accident in 2009 and have been unable to return to my former line of work due to the physical nature of the job. Any advice?

  • wayne

    Anthony–
    I have a bit of time in the vocational-rehabilitation end of human services. You sound like the perfect candidate for any number of programs. Your prior skills coupled with your stated career change goal = a “priceless” combination.

    What State are you in?

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