NASA security consultants have raised concerns about Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Starship

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft descends by parachute on December 22, 2019, following the completion of the Orbital Flight Test-1 mission. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Geminani

Members of NASA’s Independent Safety Advisory Board on Thursday warned the space agency against rushing into a test flight for the crew of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and raised concerns about the capsule’s final parachute certification and safety levels. Boeing personnel in the program.

Security advisers also said there were “obvious security concerns” about SpaceX’s plan to launch its giant Starship rocket from Platform 39A at Kennedy Space Center, the same facility used for space missions.

Boeing plans to launch a problematic replay of the Starliner crew module test flight next week. The mission – called Orbital Flight Test-2 or OFT-2 – will not carry astronauts. But if all goes well, the OFT-2 mission will pave the way for the next Starliner launch to transport a crew to the space station for a final demonstration mission – called Crew Flight Test, or CFT – before a further announcement from NASA. and from Boeing. . Ready-to-run utility vehicle.

Developed through a public-private partnership, the Starliner spacecraft will give NASA a second human-rated capsule capable of transporting astronauts to and from the space station, much like SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which launched with a crew for the first time. in May 2020.

With SpaceX now providing regular crew transport services to the space station, NASA officials have had time to resolve technical issues with the Starliner spacecraft. However, NASA wants to establish two crew transport providers to avoid relying on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for astronaut flights if SpaceX experiences significant delays.

“The committee is pleased that there appears to be no sense of need to rush to finance terrorism,” David West, a member of the air space security advisory committee, said during a public meeting on Thursday. “The view that has been consistently expressed to us (at NASA) is that the program will transition to CFT when, and only when, they are ready. Of course, the best path to CFT will be the success of OFT-2. »

NASA has signed a series of contracts with Boeing worth more than $5 billion since 2010 for Starliner development, test flights and operations. The contracts include agreements for six alternate crew flights to the space station – each with a crew of four – following the completion of the OFT-2 mission and the crew’s shorter test flight with astronauts on board.

But the Starliner program has faced years of delays. Software issues prevented the spacecraft from docking with the space station during the OFT-1 mission in 2019, forcing Boeing to mount a second uncrewed test flight at its own expense. The OFT-2 mission was on the launch pad last August, ready to take off on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, when engineers noticed 13 oxidizing isolation valves in the Starliner spacecraft’s propulsion system stuck in the closed position.

After nine months of testing, investigating and replacing a new propellant, Boeing returned the Starliner spacecraft to the ULA rocket hangar on May 4 to hoist it atop an Atlas 5 rocket, ready to take off again at launch. Read our previous article on valve repair.

West said Thursday that NASA administrators had approved an oxidizer review for the OFT-2 mission, but noted that “there are questions about whether a valve redesign will be necessary for future flights after OFT-2.” He also said officials had agreed to a ’cause trigger’ of problems with the high-pressure shut-off valve in the Starliner drive unit’s propulsion system, a separate problem from the module’s oxidation valves.

The Boeing Starliner spacecraft was lifted inside the ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility on May 4 in preparation for the OFT-2 mission. The Starliner crew unit is upstairs and the service unit is downstairs. Credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

“There are also concerns that Boeing’s parachute certification is overdue,” West said.

He also noted “significant programmatic concern” with the limited number of human-rated Atlas 5 missiles remaining in the ULA’s inventory. The ULA has an additional 24 Atlas 5 missiles to fly before the missile is towed in favor of the cheaper and more powerful Vulcan Centaur.

Eight of those 24 rockets are already destined for the Starliner program, enough to meet NASA’s Boeing contract requirements, which include two more test flights and six operational crew missions to the space station.

The ULA’s new Vulcan missile has not yet been launched.

“Another factor is that the Vulcan launcher that will replace the Atlas 5 launcher with the Starliner needs to be certified for human spaceflight, and the process of getting that certification can take years,” West said.

Public concerns about NASA and the manpower contracted in the agency’s human spaceflight program “have particular significance in the case of Boeing,” said West, a longtime executive, technical director for safety and testing at the Council of Professionals in Security Certificates.

“The committee noted that staffing levels at Boeing appear to be particularly low,” West said. “The Committee will monitor the situation in the near future for the impact, if any, of this on the presence or mitigation of any security risk.

“While we do not want to see and unnecessarily put pressure on the launch of CFT, Boeing must ensure that all available resources are applied to meet the reasonable schedule and avoid unnecessary delays,” West said.

“We’re definitely behind the idea of ​​not releasing it until it’s ready, until everything is taken care of for security,” said Mark Cirangelo, another member of the security committee. “At the same time, if the delays are due to a lack of resources applied to the program, that would have big impacts, or could have big impacts, on NASA’s timeline for the return to the Moon and a lot of other things that are happening. . to get rid of these delays.

NASA and Boeing officials declined to set a timetable for the flight crew tests, saying only that the capsule’s preparations for the astronaut’s first mission were on track for the spacecraft’s launch by the end of this year. The crew testing schedule will largely depend on the results of the OFT-2 mission.

An International Space Station astronaut took this March 30 image of the Kennedy Space Center, showing Panel 39B in the lower right, Block 39A directly above, and the Vehicle Assembly Building. North is at the bottom in this photo. credit: NASA

SpaceX, another NASA commercial crew contractor, has conducted five crew launches for NASA, as well as two entirely private astronaut missions using the company’s fleet of Dragon spacecraft.

Officials said last year that SpaceX would end production of the new Dragon capsules after building four human-level vehicles. The fourth and final member of the fleet was first launched last month. Each Dragon spacecraft is designed for at least five flights, and SpaceX and NASA can certify the capsule for additional missions.

“We are certainly concerned whether the requirements for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station for any remaining lifespan can be met without additional dragons,” West said. “Parametric studies are recommended to inform and support relevant decisions on whether or not more Dragon capsules are needed.

“Dragon’s rate of fire continues, however measures are being taken to keep the rate of fire high,” West said. “Some of these measures may include postponing preventive maintenance and reusing Dragon multiple times. The committee will be watching closely to see if these measures can be implemented without increasing risk.

“We should note, by the way, that there is a massive amount of data from all these SpaceX launches,” West said. “While data can benefit NASA, we believe we should be careful not to be overwhelmed by too much data. ” Dice. . “

In February, NASA ordered three more crew rotation missions from SpaceX, in addition to the six flights under the initial commercial crew contract. Once the Starliner is operational, NASA wants to change the semiannual crew rotation between Boeing and SpaceX, offering each supplier a NASA astronaut flight each year.

West added that SpaceX plans to launch a massive, next-generation Starship rocket, currently under development in South Texas, from the Kennedy Space Center, which could pose a threat to the Falcon 9 and Dragon launch facilities on the platform.

“One potential option identified for the Starship launch is a new planned facility within the physical boundaries around Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center where the Dragons are launched,” West said. “There are obvious safety concerns regarding the launch of the large spacecraft, which has not yet been demonstrated, this close, only about 300 meters from another platform, let alone the trajectory so essential for the commercial crew program. »

The Pad 39A is also the only launch facility currently capable of launching SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, essential for putting some NASA and US military spacecraft into orbit.

The massive, super-heavy spacecraft and booster stage combine to reach nearly 120 meters in height. The system is designed to be fully reusable, and SpaceX plans to vertically land its boosted starship and upper stage at the launch site.

SpaceX is finishing work on its Starship launch pad in South Texas, but the FAA is reviewing the environmental impacts of SpaceX’s operations there before issuing a commercial launch permit for the spacecraft’s first full orbital test spaceflight. space.

NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract last year to develop a version of the Starship spacecraft to land astronauts on the Moon.

“In conclusion, I’d just like to say that these are very complex times for the PCC,” West said, referring to NASA’s commercial crew program. “As the Starship launch site explains, there are many external but relevant considerations to take into account. One thing that remains clear, however, is that it is still very important to get to the point where NASA has viable PCC suppliers. » .

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