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Crew-2 on schedule for April launch while next Starliner flight delayed

Crew-2 simluator

WASHINGTON — NASA officials said March 1 that the next SpaceX commercial crew mission to the International Space Station remains on schedule for late April, but that a Boeing uncrewed test flight is facing further delays.

The Crew-2 mission, a flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carrying astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency to the station, remains on track for a launch no earlier than April 20, agency officials said at a briefing.

The actual launch date may shift by a few days “to more optimize some of the orbital mechanics and the launch opportunities,” said Steve Stich, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program. The agency is trying to fit the mission in during a window between the mid-April departure of the Soyuz MS-17 spacecraft and a “beta cutout” in May when sun angles restrict ISS activities.

That schedule also has to accommodate the return of the Crew-1 mission on the Crew Dragon currently docked to the station. Stich said the goal is to have that spacecraft return to Earth by May 9 to avoid “dark landing opportunities” for the spacecraft’s splashdown.

Neither NASA nor SpaceX see any major challenges to launching in late April, even after the shutdown of a Merlin engine on a Feb. 15 Falcon 9 launch that prevented the booster from landing. “Everybody is on track and ready for an April 20 launch readiness date,” Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said at the briefing.

The Crew-2 mission will be the third Crew Dragon flight to carry astronauts, but the first such spacecraft to be reused. The Crew Dragon capsule for Crew-2 previously flew the Demo-2 mission last year, and workers have spent the last several months refurbishing it for the upcoming flight.

SpaceX has been working with NASA on the refurbishment process, determining what components need to be replaced to ensure crew safety and what can be kept. “I can happily say that the vast majority of the vehicle is flight-proven,” Reed said. Some valves and parts of the thermal protection system are being changed, he said, along with parachutes that are replaced after every flight. “Otherwise, it’s really the same vehicle that’s very carefully inspected, carefully prepared and refurbished as needed, and ready to fly.”

SpaceX has also “beefed up” the structure of the spacecraft to improve the acceptable wind speeds and wave heights for splashdown, thus expanding the landing opportunities. “This is one of the most important updates that we’ve done on this Dragon,” he said.

Stich added the spacecraft has improved pad abort performance in the form of additional propellant for the SuperDraco thrusters, which also improves launch constraints by allowing launches when there are stronger onshore winds. “I really look at this flight as an abort enhancement flight,” he said.

Starliner delay

The Crew-2 mission was scheduled to be the third crew-capable spacecraft to visit the ISS in April. It will be preceded by the Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft, set for launch April 9.

NASA had scheduled the launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle on the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) 2 mission for April 2. That mission will be a reflight of the original, flawed OFT mission in December 2019 that was unable to dock with the station because of software problems.

It’s now unlikely, though, that the mission, recently delayed from late March, will be ready to launch in early April. “We are going to move off of 4/2,” Stich said. Preparations for the mission are about two weeks behind schedule, he said, in part because of winter weather and associated power outages in the Houston area that delayed software testing for the spacecraft by a week.

It’s unclear when the OFT-2 can take place because of the upcoming Soyuz and Crew-2 missions, and then availability on the Eastern Range at Cape Canaveral for the Atlas 5 launch of the mission. “It’s a very busy timeframe on the space station,” Stich said. “And then it’s a busy time on the range, so we’re working hand-in-hand with Boeing to figure out when that launch date will be. We’ll have to stand by for further developments on exactly when that flight will fly.”

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Safety panel concerned about quality control on Boeing crew capsule

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft that flew on the Orbital Flight Test mission is pictured last November outside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Alex Polimeni/Spaceflight Now

Members of NASA’s independent panel of aerospace safety advisors raised concerns last week about quality control problems that “seemingly have plagued” Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule program, while urging NASA to closely monitor SpaceX’s plans to reuse Crew Dragon spaceships on astronaut flights to the International Space Station.

An unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft in December ended prematurely after a programming error in the capsule’s mission elapsed timer caused the ship to burn too much fuel shortly after separating from its Atlas 5 rocket.

The unexpected fuel consumption left the Starliner capsule with insufficient propellant to complete its flight to the space station.

The Starliner landed safely in New Mexico two days later, but ground teams identified another software problem in a propulsion controller governing thrusters on the spacecraft’s service module, which jettisons from the Starliner crew module before re-entry into the atmosphere. Mission control uplinked a software patch shortly before re-entry, eliminating a risk that the mis-configured propulsion controller could have caused the jettisoned service module to ram into the crew module after separation.

There were also problems with the Starliner’s communications system during the unpiloted demonstration mission, known as the Orbital Flight Test, or OFT.

An independent review team that investigated the problems during the OFT mission issued 80 recommendations for Boeing and NASA engineers to address software issues, the communications problem, and management oversight shortfalls in oversight that contributed to the problems on last year’s test flight.

Donald McErlean, a seasoned aerospace industry consultant and member of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, said July 23 that Boeing is making progress toward resolving the technical problems. Boeing plans to fly a second, previously-unplanned Starliner Orbital Flight Test to the space station late this year, followed by a Crew Flight Test in the first half of 2021 with a three-person team of astronauts on-board.

“However, despite this progress, which is definite and in fact measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program,” said McErlean, a former chief engineer for the U.S. Navy’s aviation programs.

Boeing performed a pad abort test of a Starliner crew capsule last November, the month before the Orbital Flight Test. One of the capsule’s three main parachutes did not deploy after an otherwise-successful test of the spacecraft’s abort engines, and Boeing traced that problem to a missing pin in the parachute’s rigging.

“We realize that the CCP (Commercial Crew Program) has been working with the safety and engineering communities to address these issues, but this is still an issue that the panel will continue to watch closely as OFT and later CFT are conducted,” McErlean said.

The panel recommended NASA’s Commercial Crew Program “maintain a balance” between setting and achieving schedule milestones and ensuring managers make appropriate technical decisions, according to McErlean.

Boeing developed the Starliner spacecraft under contract to NASA, which is seeking to end its sole reliance on Russian Soyuz crew capsules to ferry astronauts to and from the space station. NASA awarded Boeing a $4.2 billion contract and SpaceX received a $2.6 billion deal in 2014 to complete development of the Starliner and Crew Dragon spaceships.

The public-private partnerships were designed to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for crew transportation to and from the space station.

While Boeing still has at least two Starliner test flights — one without crew members and one with astronauts — before the capsule is declared operational, SpaceX is nearing the end of the Crew Dragon development program. The human-rated capsule launched with astronauts for the first time May 30 on the Demo-2 mission, and delivered NASA test pilots Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station the next day.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on May 31 with astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on-board. Credit: NASA

Hurley and Behnken are scheduled to depart the station Aug. 1 and splash down off the Florida coast Aug. 2, completing a mission spanning more than two months. Once the Crew Dragon is back on Earth, SpaceX and NASA engineers plan to formally certify the SpaceX crew capsule for regular crew rotation missions to the space station, beginning with a launch as soon as late September from the Kennedy Space Center carrying four astronauts to the orbiting research complex for a six-month expedition.

The mission scheduled for launch in late September — known as Crew-1 — will be followed by at least five more operational Crew Dragon missions through 2024.

NASA last month said it will allow SpaceX to reuse Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 boosters for NASA astronaut missions. NASA says SpaceX could begin reusing Crew Dragon vehicles and Falcon 9 first stages on crewed launches beginning with the second post-certification mission, or Crew-2.

The Crew-2 launch is scheduled in February 2021. The Crew-1 mission — SpaceX’s first operational astronaut flight — is slated to fly with a brand new Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket.

Each of SpaceX’s operational crew rotation flights to the space station will carry up to four astronauts, including space fliers from NASA and the space station’s international partners.

NASA has assigned astronauts Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker to the Crew-1 mission. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi will join the U.S. astronauts on the Crew Dragon spacecraft.

“You are seeing the beginning of the rotational use of the commercial crew systems in transporting our astronauts to the ISS,” McErlean said.

In the safety panel’s July 23 public meeting, McErlean said SpaceX currently plans to refurbish and reuse the Crew Dragon spacecraft that is flying on the Demo-2 mission on the Crew-2 mission next year. That crew capsule was named Dragon Endeavour by Hurley and Behnken soon after their launch in May.

SpaceX also aims to reuse the Falcon 9 rocket booster assigned to the Crew-1 mission again on the Crew-2 launch next year, McErlean said.

“So in this case, Crew-2 will be fully utilizing the SpaceX reuse philosophy,” McErlean said. “Although reuse has been successful in prior launches, the use of previously-flown hardware for a human spaceflight mission is unique, and it will create some additional work for NASA, who must address the human certification requirements.”

Boeing also plans to reuse Starliner crew capsules on multiple flights. Unlike the Crew Dragon, which splashes down at sea, the Starliner parachutes to an airbag-cushioned touchdown on land.

McErlean, speaking for the safety advisory panel, said NASA must also keep up with SpaceX’s philosophy of “constantly evolving vehicle designs” with an “ongoing formal safety-related process” to ensure the modifications remain within the agency’s human-rating certification requirements.

“With the completion of the Demo-2 mission and appropriate vehicle changes driven by the data gathered during that mission, NASA will have a essentially concluded the required certification process for flying NASA personnel on SpaceX hardware,” McErlean said. “However, it is the panel’s opinion that given the SpaceX approach to hardware upgrades, NASA has to decide by what processes it will continue to monitor vehicle and system changes to ensure that those changes still remain within an appropriately certified safety posture for human spaceflight operations.”

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NASA safety panel has lingering doubts about Boeing Starliner quality control

Starliner in orbit

WASHINGTON — Members of a NASA safety panel expressed continued concern about quality issues with Boeing’s commercial crew spacecraft while cautiously supporting SpaceX’s plans to fly reused spacecraft on future crewed missions.

During a July 23 teleconference by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, members discussed several reviews of issues with the uncrewed flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft last December. NASA announced July 7 it had completed its reviews of that Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission, which resulted in 80 recommendations specific to the flight and several more from a separate “high-visibility close call” review carried out earlier this year by NASA.

All of the recommendations specific to Starliner, including software issues that accounted for the majority of those recommendations, will need to be completed and approved before a second OFT mission, said Don McErlean, a member of the panel. He noted NASA has augmented its commercial crew software team “to significantly increase insight and oversight” into the vehicle’s software development.

Those actions “should significantly reduce the risk to OFT, Crew Flight Test, and further [commercial crew program] flights,” he said. Crew Flight Test, or CFT, would be a crewed test flight of the spacecraft carrying two NASA astronauts and one Boeing astronaut.

However, he said the panel still had concerns about the overall Starliner program. “Despite this progress, which is definite and, in fact, measurable, the panel continues to be concerned about quality control problems that seemingly have plagued the Boeing commercial crew program,” he said. “This is still an issue that the panel will continue to watch closely as OFT and, later, CFT, are conducted.”

The panel made no specific recommendations beyond asking NASA’s commercial crew program to ensure there is a balance between schedule and work on the vehicle. NASA has not set a schedule for the second OFT mission, but has suggested the flight could take place late this year, with CFT following in the spring of 2021.

Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, was skeptical that Starliner will be ready to fly NASA astronauts soon, concluding it was “still a ways off before we have two fully functioning, operational vehicles.”

Concerns about the software issues with Starliner have extended to other NASA programs. Susan Helms, a former astronaut who is a member of the panel, said NASA’s exploration systems development (ESD) programs are “very engaged” in the review, particularly regarding software development recommendations that could apply to its own programs.

NASA “is applying the notable lessons learned from that investigation to the software program management of the ESD program,” she said, although the details about effort were deferred to a future panel meeting.

SpaceX reusability

While the safety panel was critical of Boeing’s work on commercial crew, it praised SpaceX for the success so far of its Demo-2 Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station. “NASA and SpaceX are most certainly to be congratulated for the Demo-2 launch,” McErlean said.

That mission, he acknowledged, is not yet over, with NASA planning a splashdown off the Florida coast Aug. 2, depending on weather conditions. McErlean noted that this spacecraft has a “very limited wind margin” that will complicate the landing. As a result, NASA now has identified seven locations off the Florida coast, up from three originally identified. They are located offshore from Cape Canaveral, Daytona Beach, Jacksonville, Panama City, Pensacola, Tallahassee and Tampa.

A successful landing for Demo-2 will allow NASA and SpaceX to turn their attention to the first operational Crew Dragon mission, Crew-1. NASA said in a July 22 media advisory it anticipated a launch no earlier than late September.

The Crew-1 mission will use both a new Falcon 9 booster and Crew Dragon spacecraft, but later missions will use previously flown hardware. NASA approved a contract modification in May that allows SpaceX to reuse boosters and capsule starting on the Crew-2 mission, which would launch in 2021.

McErlean said NASA expects that the Crew-2 will use the Falcon 9 booster that launches Crew-1, and the capsule from the ongoing Demo-2 mission.

“This is the first time that we will have reuse of hardware in a human-carrying capsule,” he said. “In this case, Crew-2 will be fully utilizing the SpaceX reuse philosophy.”

Allowing boosters and spacecraft to be reflown on crewed missions will require changes to NASA spacecraft certification procedures, he cautioned, as well as handling SpaceX’s approach to “constantly evolving” vehicle designs to incorporate improvements and other changes.

“Given the SpaceX approach to hardware upgrades, NASA has to decide by what processes it will continue to monitor vehicle and system changes to ensure that those changes still remain in an appropriately certified safety posture for human spaceflight operations,” he said.

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Safety panel concludes May launch of commercial crew test flight is feasible

Crew Dragon spacecraft

WASHINGTON — A NASA safety panel believes the agency’s plan to launch a SpaceX commercial crew test flight in late May is feasible, although some issues still need to be resolved before the launch.

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), meeting by teleconference April 23, said it was unable to talk with NASA’s commercial crew program during its quarterly meeting, which was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. The panel’s chair, Patricia Sanders, said that scheduling issues prevented a meeting, but that her committee planned to hold a “part 2” of their quarterly meeting in early May to discuss commercial crew and other topics not taken up this week.

Sanders said the panel has been kept up to date by NASA about commercial crew activities, including plans for SpaceX’s Demo-2 crewed test flight scheduled for May 27. “We are aware of a few technical items that remain to be more fully understood,” she said, “but the path forward appears feasible.”

She did not elaborate on the technical issues that need to be addressed before launch. However, SpaceX is still wrapping up testing of the Mark 3 parachutes used by the Crew Dragon spacecraft. In an April 17 statement, the company said it had performed 12 successful multi-parachute tests, as well as their use on the spacecraft’s in-flight abort test in January, but at that time at least one more parachute test was expected.

There is also an investigation into the premature shutdown of one of the nine Merlin engines in the first stage of a Falcon 9 during a March 18 launch. That did not affect the rocket’s ability to place its payload of Starlink satellites into orbit but did prevent the stage from landing on a droneship in the Atlantic Ocean.

In a tweet hours before the April 22 launch of another set of Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the engine shutdown happened after a small amount of isopropyl alcohol, used as cleaning fluid in the engine, was trapped in a “sensor dead leg” and ignited during flight.

During the company’s webcast of the launch, Lauren Lyons, a SpaceX engineer who served as host of the broadcast, said that the alcohol couldn’t flow through that conduit and was trapped there, igniting in flight. “We did not perform that cleaning process on the rocket supporting today’s mission,” she said. The Merlin engines performed as expected on that launch, including supporting a successful droneship landing of the first stage.

NASA participated in the investigation into the engine anomaly. NASA spokesman Josh Finch said April 23 that the investigation was still ongoing and that the agency will have to agree on both the cause and corrective actions before proceeding with the Demo-2 mission. The Falcon 9 that will launch the Demo-2 mission will be a new rocket, while the first stage involved in the March launch anomaly was on its fifth flight, and the April 22 launch used a first stage on its fourth flight.

Sanders said a final decision to go ahead with the Demo-2 mission will have to take into account several factors. “Clearly, the decision on when to launch and on the duration of the test mission will be one that balances any residual risks with the vehicle design and implementation with hazards of the current pandemic environment and with the risk of insufficient manning of the International Space Station,” she said.

The Demo-2 mission’s crew, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, will fly to the ISS, docking there within a day after launch. They will remain on the station, which currently has only three people on board, for what NASA calls an “extended” stay, the duration of which it has not announced.

The panel also weighed in on the status of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle after a test flight in December 2019 that suffered several problems. At the previous ASAP meeting Feb. 6, the committee revealed an issue, not previously reported, involving the spacecraft’s software that could have caused the Starliner’s service module to collide with its crew module after separation just before reentry.

An independent review ultimately found 61 corrective actions for Boeing regarding the spacecraft, and Boeing announced April 6 it would perform a second uncrewed test flight, or Orbital Flight Test (OFT), of the Starliner spacecraft late this year before moving ahead with a crewed test flight.

“Much remains to be resolved before they will be expected to be certified for human spaceflight,” Sanders said of Boeing, saying that work goes beyond a second OFT mission.

That second flight, she said, “is not sufficient to address the concerns that have arisen following the OFT, and we continue to strongly advise NASA to ensure that the underlying technical and organization or cultural shortcomings uncovered during the investigation of the mishap and subsequent reviews are fully addressed and mitigated before any attempt to launch astronauts on the vehicle.”

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