Tag Archives: Starliner

Atlas 5 upper stage for first unmanned Starliner launch arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The Centaur upper stage to the ULA Atlas 5 rocket that will launch Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first unmanned test flight has arrived in Florida.

According to present schedules, that flight is set for no earlier than March. This delivery makes that schedule more likely.

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Commercial crew test flights delayed again

NASA today released an updated schedule for the Dragon and Starliner test flights, indicating the first Dragon flight has been pushed to January 2019.

  • SpaceX Demo-1 uncrewed flight test: January 2019 (delayed from November 2018)
  • Boeing uncrewed Orbital Flight Test: March 2019 (delayed from late 2018/early 2019)
  • SpaceX Demo-2 crewed flight test: June 2019 (delayed from April 2019)
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test: August 2019 (nominally still in mid-2019 as earlier stated)

It appears from the article that SpaceX was prepared to fly its first flight in December, meaning only a one month delay, but scheduling conflicts at ISS forced them to push it to January.

With the Boeing flights, the scheduling has less to do with delays and more do to do with setting more precise launch dates.

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Update on SpaceX and Boeing’s private commercial crew capsules

Link here. The key piece of news is that both companies now believe they meet NASA’s safety requirements.

[D]uring a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection. “Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

It should be understood that the requirements being discussed here really have nothing to do with actual engineering, but are based on a statistical analysis that estimates the risk to any passenger. In other words, it is a pure guess, and can be manipulated any way anyone wants. This is why NASA’s manager above is so vague. What she is really saying is that NASA is slowly being forced to accept the analysis of the contractors.

The article at the link also details the present schedule, which appears mostly unchanged (though Musk indicated there might be a slight delay in Dragon during his BFR presentation earlier this week), and the efforts by both companies to make their capsules reusable.

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Dragon/Starliner schedules firming up

At a meeting at NASA this week a status update of SpaceX’s manned Dragon and Boeing’s manned Starliner capsules indicated that their proposed flight schedules, with the first manned flights occurring next year, are increasingly firm.

Overall, the updates were quite positive with most of the flight hardware nearing completion. The two companies must each execute two test flights to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to be certified to perform operational crew rotation missions.

On the SpaceX side, the company will first execute an uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft called Demonstration Mission 1 (DM-1) – currently scheduled for this coming November. It will then be followed by a crewed test flight designated Demonstration Mission 2 (DM-2). In between the two missions, SpaceX will also execute an in-flight abort test.

In terms of Boeing, they will perform an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) with the CST-100 Starliner followed by a Crewed Flight Test (CFT). A pad abort test will be also conducted between the two missions.

While Boeing’s schedule for these flights is somewhat uncertain as they investigate the recent failure of several valves to close during an engine test, SpaceX’s schedule has become very solid. Assuming nothing goes wrong on the unmanned test flight in November and the in-flight abort test, they will fly humans in April, 2019.

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Flying Boeing’s Starliner capsule

Link here. The article provides some nice details about the way the spacecraft will operate (mostly by computer), with the astronauts monitoring and capable of taking over at any point.

Unlike Dragon, the control panel has no touchscreens. According to astronaut Chris Ferguson, the design was “borrowed a little bit from Orion, and it’s kind of the way some of the 5th generation military planes interact with pilots.” Not as fancy, but maybe more practical. I still have my doubts about the ability of astronauts to accurately press a touchscreen during the vibrations of launch.

There is something else, however, about this article that bugs me. It reads too much like an SLS update, filled with glowing reports that, in the case of SLS, are designed to disguise a program that is not going to meet its schedule. This is pure speculation based on nothing but instinct, but it is an impression I have and do not like.

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NASA announces crews for first commercial manned launches

NASA has announced the crews for the first commercial manned launches.

Boeing’s crew flight test aboard its Starliner spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in mid-2019, will have Eric Boe, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann on board. Boeing’s first post-certification mission will have Josh Cassada and Suni Williams aboard.

SpaceX’s demo mission 2 aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in April 2019, will have Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard. The first post-certification mission will be crewed by Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins.

These crews cover the first two manned missions for each spacecraft.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

More information here.

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New launch dates for commercial crew posted by NASA

NASA has now released an updated schedule for the first test flights of Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon manned capsules:

In chronological order:

SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): November 2018
Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): late 2018 / early 2019
SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): April 2019
Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): mid-2019

Note once again that this schedule bears no resemblance to the pessimistic schedule put forth by the GAO. That schedule indicated that significant delays could be expected because of NASA’s heavy paperwork requirements.

I fully expect that political needs will force that paperwork to be done much faster than the GAO, or NASA, expects, or even wants. And the increased speed will have little to do with reducing safety.

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Boeing adjusts Starliner launch schedule after fuel leak during test

Capitalism in space: Yesterday Boeing pushed back its Starliner launch schedule as a result of the fuel leak problem that had occurred during an engine test of the capsule last week.

They now plan the first unmanned test flight around the end of this year, with the first manned flight in the middle of 2019.

As for the fuel leak,

several abort engine valves failed to close properly, causing a leak of toxic fuels. The test article was not damaged and no one was hurt, but the incident required an investigation with support from NASA.

Other reports say that 4 of 8 valves failed to close. There is no explanation about why this happened, but I find it a very strange technical failure. Building valves for spacecraft is not cutting edge design, or I wouldn’t think so.

Tomorrow NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is going to make an announcement with some official launch dates for both Boeing and SpaceX. We shall see if SpaceX’s schedule gets pushed back as well.

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NASA safety panel reviews commercial crew, tries to justify its paperwork demands

Link here. The article describes the results from the quarterly meeting of NASA’s safety panel, which occurred last week, including its concerns about the recent test problems during a launch abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. It also describes the panel’s general satisfaction at the status of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The article however ends with a long screed by one panel member, explaining that the heavy paperwork requirements they are imposing on the two companies is not really paperwork.

“It needs to be noted by everyone, and we’re especially interested in making sure that all of the external stakeholders realize this, that while the concluding process of certification has sometimes been described as a paper process, that is really just a shorthand clarification and in reality it could not be further from the truth,” noted Dr. McErlean.

In reality, the process is as follows. “In a certified design, the design agent – the contractor or partner in this case – performs the design and in the certification plan, the design agent and the certification agency (NASA) agree on the submittal of certification evidence.

“This could be measurements, it can be test data, it can be analysis, but it almost always involves the submittal of detailed technical data, not simply paper descriptions or forms. Sometimes it involves witness testing and sometimes it involves physical inspection. But it almost always wraps around important technical submittals.

Can I translate? The safety panel requires a lot of testing so that a lot of paperwork can be filled out. And while much of this testing is likely to help make the capsule’s safer, most of it seems to me to be make-work, and designed to justify the existence of NASA and its safety panel.

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NASA rubberstamps Russian engines in Atlas 5 for manned flights

Surprise surprise! NASA has certified the Russian engines used in the Atlas 5 as safe for manned flights.

NASA had been claiming that, because it cannot observe every detail in how Russia builds the engines, it cannot certify them as safe for manned flight. This is, and has been, crap. The Atlas 5, with this engine, has been one of the most reliable rockets ever built.

In truth, what NASA’s bureaucracy was really doing was using these Russian engines as a wedge to slow down Boeing’s first manned flight, mainly because the commercial crew program is threatening NASA past monopoly on U.S. manned flight. Once privately built rockets and manned spacecraft fly, people are suddenly going to realize we don’t really need NASA.

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Changes to big August 3 commercial crew announcement do not bode well

On August 3 NASA is planning on making a big announcement concerning its commercial crew program. Yesterday the agency revealed that the NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, will reveal the names of the crew for the first commercial crew flight.

The changes in how that announcement will be made however suggest that they had hoped to make a bigger announcement and have been forced to back off. Initially, vice president Mike Pence was to have made the announcement. He has now canceled his participation. Also, there had previously been rumors that the announcement would have included the launch dates for both SpaceX’s and Boeing’s first flights. That the new press release makes no mention of dates suggests the dates have been delayed.

I hope I am wrong.

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Starliner has propellant leak during launch abort test

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s Starliner capsule experienced a propellant leak near the end of a launch abort test in late June.

The company said it conducted a hot-fire test of the launch-abort engines on an integrated service module at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico in June. The engines successfully ignited and ran for the full duration, but during engine shutdown an anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak. “We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners,” the statement said. “We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action.”

The capsule being tested is an engineering model, not one that is intended to fly. Boeing also has said that “they believe there is an operational fix to the problem rather than a need to significantly rework the Starliner spacecraft itself.”

This incident however is certain to delay Boeing’s crew launch schedule, especially considering NASA’s own timidity about the privately built space capsules. The agency will insist on a complete review, no matter how long it takes, even if the company has pinpointed the problem already and has instituted corrections.

In a normal world, this event should not effect SpaceX’s schedule. I also expect however that the agency will use this event to slow SpaceX down again, demanding further reviews there as well.

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GAO report indicates NASA forcing more delays in commercial crew

A Government Accountability Office report released today suggests that NASA’s complex certification requirements will cause further delays in first operational missions of the commercial crew capsules of Boeing and SpaceX.

The report shows when NASA believes Boeing and SpaceX will each have completed a single non-crewed test flight, a test flight with crew, and then undergo a certification process to become ready for operational flights. This is known as the “certification milestone.”

Based on NASA’s “schedule risk analysis” from April, the agency estimates that Boeing will reach this milestone sometime between May 1, 2019, and August 30, 2020. For SpaceX, the estimated range is August 1, 2019, and November 30, 2020. The analysis’ average certification date was December, 2019, for Boeing and January, 2020, for SpaceX.

These are obviously razor-thin margins, but the new report also indicates that Boeing is ahead in submitting paperwork needed for approval of its various flight systems and processes. This is consistent with what independent sources have told Ars, that Boeing is more familiar with NASA and better positioned to comply with its complex certification processes. [emphasis mine]

This does not surprise me. From the beginning of commercial crew there have been people at NASA working to slow SpaceX down so as to not embarrass Boeing as well as SLS/Orion. By using the “complex certification process,” which really has little to do with engineering and everything to do with bureaucracy and power politics, NASA has effectively succeeded in preventing SpaceX from getting off the ground. The company could have flown a manned Dragon at least a year ago, if NASA had not stood in the way and imposed numerous safety demands, some of which make no sense.

Meanwhile, NASA’s bureaucracy and certification process has created a situation where neither company might be ready to fly when the ticketed flights on Russian Soyuz capsules end. To solve this gap the agency is actually thinking of stretching out ISS missions so it doesn’t have to fly ferry missions as much. While longer missions to ISS make sense — if your goal is to learn how to get to Mars — this isn’t why NASA is thinking of doing it. Instead, it is doing it so that it can make private space, especially SpaceX, look bad.

All in all, NASA’s management seems entirely uninterested in real space exploration, and the risks it entails. Instead, they are focused on power politics and serving the needs of the big space contractors that they have worked with for decades, accomplishing little while spending a lot of taxpayer dollars.

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A NASA astronaut’s detailed look at Dragon and Starliner

Link here. Lots of interesting details about both spacecraft from an experienced astronaut’s perspective.

The Commercial Crew program will launch uncrewed ships first. SpaceX is aiming to do that in September and Boeing in October. If successful, crewed launches will follow on December 31 (Boeing) and January 17 (SpaceX).

“We’ve gotten into the cockpit in both spacecraft. We’ve run through parts of the profile, from launch to rendezvous docking, un-docking, and [atmospheric] entry. But everything’s not been tied up, not quite yet,” Williams said. She didn’t say which company’s spaceship is her favorite.

In fact, crewed launch dates may slip to mid-2019. Williams said she expects NASA to announce her official mission selection this summer, and from there about a year of more deliberate mission training will follow.

This is a delay from the previously planned summer launches. This had been expected, but it also looks like both companies are trying hard to get things off the ground this year.

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NASA expands first manned Starliner mission

NASA has modified its contract with Boeing to allow its first manned Starliner test mission to add an astronaut and extend the mission’s length so that it more resembles an operational flight to ISS.

NASA is considering adding a third crew member to the Starliner’s “Crew Flight Test” and could extend its trip to the International Space Station from two weeks up to six months, the length of a typical ISS expedition. The potential changes, outlined in a contract modification with Boeing, could help NASA maintain its presence on the International Space Station through 2019 and beyond.

NASA’s last purchased ride aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, upon which the U.S. has relied for access to the ISS since the shuttle’s retirement in 2011, is scheduled to launch in the fall of 2019.
Boeing’s new Starliner spacesuit features lightweight fabric, slim gloves and sneaker-like boots. But Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon may not be certified to fly four-person crews until after that. “This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of human spaceflight operations at NASA headquarters in Washington. “We appreciate Boeing’s willingness to evolve its flight to ensure we have continued access to space for our astronauts.”

Doing this makes some sense, but I wonder why NASA chose to do it with Boeing’s Starliner instead of SpaceX’s Dragon. Starliner has never flown in any form, while the manned Dragon is based on SpaceX’s well tested design.

I suspect NASA will soon modify its SpaceX contract as well. It makes sense. Once you put humans on board, you might as well give yourself the option to do a full mission.

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First commercial crew flights still set for 2018 with chance of delay

NASA’s manager of the commercial crew program provided an update to the agency’s advisory board on Monday, noting that both SpaceX and Boeing are making good progress to their scheduled first flights late this year.

The bottom line however is that there is a good chance the flights will slip into 2019, though based on the update it appears to me that the flights will not slip that much beyond that.

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Atlas 5 man-rated upgrades approved by NASA for Starliner launches

Capitalism in space: ULA announced this week that its Atlas 5 rocket has passed a NASA review that now approves the design changes necessary to allow that rocket to launch Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule.

“Design Certification Review is a significant milestone that completes the design phase of the program, paving the way to operations,” said Barb Egan, ULA Commercial Crew program manager. “Hardware and software final qualification tests are underway, as well as a major integrated test series, including structural loads. Future tests will involve launch vehicle hardware, such as jettison tests, acoustic tests, and, finally, a pad abort test in White Sands, New Mexico.”

Launch vehicle production is currently on track for an uncrewed August 2018 Orbital Flight Test (OFT).

The schedule to make that August flight happen still remains tight, but this approval brings it one step closer.

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First flights of commercial manned capsules in 2018

According to a NASA presentation last month, it appears that both SpaceX and Boeing are aiming to complete both their first unmanned and manned flights this coming year.

The schedules remain tight, but SpaceX plans to do its first unmanned demo mission in April, followed by a manned flight in August, while Boeing’s first unmanned flight is set for August, with the first manned flight in November. If these schedules happen 2018 should be quite an exciting year.

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Boeing’s Starliner undergoing drop tests

Capitalism in space: Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule yesterday successfully completed the 11th of 14 drop tests in preparation for launch.

The article includes extensive comments by two NASA astronauts who are working with Boeing on these drop tests. I found this quote interesting:

[Sunita] Williams and [Eric] Boe said there are benefits and drawbacks to either type of landing, but they preferred land over water. Williams speaks from experience: She has already made a land landing aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. “When you land on land, maybe it’s a little bit harder,” Williams said. “But when you’re coming down at high speed, the water’s hard, too.

“Landing on water, if somebody’s right there to rescue you and they know exactly where you’re coming down, that works. And we’ve shown that works with the Apollo program. But, landing on water — I’m a Navy guy, there’s a big ocean out there and it’s a little space capsule and there’s some definite risks to that, too.

“Landing on the Soyuz, you open the hatch, you smell the grass, you’re not in a huge rush to get out or stay in. You know you’re in a solid place and you know you can take your time getting out and the rescue forces will be there eventually, if they’re not there knocking on the door.”

The article also noted that Boeing plans to refurbish each capsule and reuse it up to ten times.

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Boeing delays first manned Starliner flight

Capitalism in space: It appears that Boeing has pushed back the first manned flight of its Starliner capsule from August 2018 to early 2019.

In an interview at the conference, Ferguson said that the company’s current schedule calls for a pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico in the second quarter of 2018. That would be followed by an uncrewed orbital test flight of the vehicle, launched on an Atlas V, in the third quarter of 2018. “If the results of that are very favorable,” he said of the uncrewed flight test, “our crewed flight test is fourth quarter — perhaps, depending on the outcome, maybe the first quarter of the following year.”

This schedule appears to be an overall three to five month delay in their program.

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Schedule for commercial manned flights solidifies

Capitlism in space: It appears that the schedule for the first unmanned and manned test flights of the commercial capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing is getting more certain.

The latest SpaceX schedule calls for an uncrewed test flight in February 2018, followed by a crewed test flight in June 2018. Boeing’s schedule anticipates an uncrewed test flight in June 2018 and a crewed test flight in August 2018.

While this sounds encouraging, the story contradicts a Boeing report last week that suggested their first manned flight would be delayed into the fourth quarter of 2018. Both stories however pin the first unmanned demo flight for June 2018, which now seems to be a firm date.

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First Starliner manned flight delayed to late 2018

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of its commercial Starliner capsule will likely be delayed a few more months to late 2018.

The latest confirmed schedules from NASA show the uncrewed mission, dubbed the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), slated for No Earlier Than June 2018, followed quickly in August 2018 by the crewed flight test.

However, comments made by Chris Ferguson last month at the Paris Air Show seem to indicate that the crewed flight test is moving from its August timeframe. According to Mr. Ferguson, Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, the first Starliner crewed test flight is aiming for “last quarter of 2018” – which would be a shift of two to five months into the October to December 2018 timeframe.

The unmanned test flight, however, remains set for a June 18, 2018 launch.

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First test launches of commercial manned vehicles upcoming

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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Parachute tests for Boeing Starliner

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has successfully completed a parachute test at New Mexico’s Spaceport America.

Uniquely, this test wasn’t conducted via the use of a helicopter of an aircraft – as seen with other vehicles, such as the Orion spacecraft. Boeing was not able to fit the Starliner test article into the hold of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft, so they instead used a 1.3-million-cubic-foot balloon, which is able to lift the capsule to its intended altitude.

The test went well, with Starliner released from the balloon, deploying two drogue parachutes at 28,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft, then its pilot parachutes at 12,000 feet. The main parachutes followed at 8,000 feet above the ground prior to the jettison of the spacecraft’s base heat shield at 4,500 feet. Finally, the spacecraft successfully touched down.

The article once again makes note of NASA’s fake concern over the Atlas 5 rocket. The concern isn’t that the rocket isn’t reliable. The concern is that Boeing hasn’t yet gotten NASA’s certification that it is reliable. In other words, because NASA hasn’t signed a piece of paper stating the obvious fact that the Atlas 5 is safe, Boeing’s Starliner cannot be considered safe.

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Killing both commercial space and American astronauts

This all reeks of politics: A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released yesterday says that NASA it should not permit Boeing and SpaceX to fly humans on their capsules and rockets until they fix certain issues and test both repeatedly on unmanned flights before the first manned flights to ISS.

This GAO report was mandated by Congress, and it requires NASA to certify that both Boeing and SpaceX have met NASA’s requirements before allowing those first manned flights. While the technical issues outlined in the report — to which NASA concurs — might be of concern, my overall impression in reading the report, combined with yesterday’s announcement by NASA that they are seriously considering flying humans on SLS’s first test flight, is that this process is actually designed to put obstacles in front of Boeing and SpaceX so as to slow their progress and allow SLS to launch first with humans aboard.

For example, the report lists three main problems with the commercial manned effort. First there is the Russian engine on the Atlas 5. From the report itself [pdf]:
» Read more

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Boeing unveils its spacesuit for Starliner missions

The competition heats up: Boeing today unveiled the streamlined but snazzy spacesuit it plans to use on its Starliner manned ferry flights to and from ISS.

This tidbit though I think illustrates the new mindset, to make things simpler and cheaper and more focused on their actual purpose.

Boeing’s suit, designed with the Massachusetts-based David Clark Co., weighs about 12 pounds, compared to 30 pounds for NASA’s orange suits formally called the Advanced Crew Escape Suit, or ACES. …The “get us home suit,” as Ferguson called it, couldn’t be used for a spacewalk. It’s intended to provide air and cooling to keep astronauts safe during launch and landings back on land, and during emergencies, like if a micrometeoroid strike caused a loss of cabin pressure.

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No more manned Soyuz purchased by NASA after 2019

The competition heats up: Both Boeing and SpaceX better get their manned capsules working by 2019, because NASA at this point has no plans to buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules after the present contract runs out.

Even as the commercial crew schedules move later into 2018, NASA officials say they are not considering extending the contract with Roscosmos — the Russian space agency — for more launches in 2019. The last Soyuz launch seats reserved for U.S. astronauts are at the end of 2018.

It takes more than two years to procure components and assemble new Soyuz capsules, so Russia needed to receive new Soyuz orders from NASA by some time this fall to ensure the spacecraft would be ready for liftoff in early 2019.

The second paragraph above notes that even if NASA decided it needed more Soyuz launches, it is probably too late to buy them and have them available by 2019.

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Boeing pushes back first Starliner flights

Boeing has delayed the first test flight of its Starliner manned capsule from the end of 2017 until June 2018.

Boeing says that production delays and problems with qualification tests are partly to blame for the timeline slip. The company also found a production flaw in September that forced them to get rid of a main element on one of their spacecrafts — a dome that made up the pressure shell of the crew module. All of these complications combined prompted Boeing to push back the development timeline of Starliner by about six months.

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Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

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