Commercial Crew Moves Forward Toward Flight Tests

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Five years in, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is at the doorstep of launch for a new generation of spacecraft and launch vehicles that will take astronauts to the International Space Station, enhance microgravity research and open the windows to the dawn of a new era in human space transportation.

Returning the capability to launch astronauts from American soil brings tremendous satisfaction for the team working toward it.

“This is a new way of doing business, a new era in spaceflight, and when it’s all said and done, the Commercial Crew Program’s legacy will be bringing human spaceflight launches back to the U.S.,” said Kelvin Manning, who was involved in the early planning days of the commercial crew effort, and is now associate director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “That’s a big deal and our teams are making it happen.”

Two aerospace companies are working toward the goal of flying in 2017, astronauts are training with state-of-the-art flight deck control systems and the space station is being prepped for the next human-rated spacecraft to arrive.

Launch pads on Florida’s Space Coast are deep into modifications to meet the needs of astronauts and ground support staff. Manufacturing facilities for Boeing and SpaceX are working on prototypes of the spacecraft each company will use for NASA missions, then opening up the schedule for flights carrying private citizens.

As Boeing and SpaceX progress toward flight tests and operational missions for the Starliner and Crew Dragon, respectively, the space station team is already anticipating the added research a larger crew will enable on the orbiting laboratory.

“The new spacecraft will enable space station to operate at its full capacity for research,” said Josie Burnett, who served as the deputy of the office that became the Commercial Crew Program and is now director of Exploration Research and Technology programs at Kennedy. “The limiting factor for station research is crew time, it’s not cargo space or anything else.”

The station’s full complement would increase by one – from six residents to seven –allowing another 40 hours a week for science on the station, meaning the crew’s current research time allotment would double. That means double the amount of science that benefits people on Earth, as well as research to address the challenges of long-duration, deep-space missions on the journey to Mars.

The program’s effect also is helping Kennedy evolve as a spaceport tailored to industry needs for a variety of rockets and spacecraft rather than a single mission. The benefit was not required, but a reflection of the unique possibilities at Kennedy, Manning said.

“Our assets and the availability of an experienced workforce made a strong business case to come here,” Manning said. “As a result, with Boeing transforming Orbiter Processing Facility-3 into the manufacturing facility for the Starliner and SpaceX modifying Launch Complex 39A for Falcon rockets and Crew Dragons, they are key components in the creation of Kennedy’s multi-user spaceport concept.”

Business Unusual

This was the first time NASA asked industry to take the lead in designing, building and operating a space system that would carry astronauts. NASA offered its expertise in human spaceflight and wrote out the top-level requirements for safety and other considerations to prepare for flight tests. NASA will certify the vehicles for flight tests and finally operational missions. The companies apply their own knowledge and skills in designing, manufacturing and running the systems. Ultimately, NASA will buy the flights as a service from the companies.

“It’s what we hoped the program to be and honestly a lot more,” said Wayne Ordway, who began as the manager of the Commercial Crew Program’s Spacecraft Office and rose to the position of associate program manager.

This progress was hoped for, but took tremendous work and flexibility, according to members of the early efforts to transform the fledgling vision of a close partnership between NASA and private industry into a functioning organization capable of establishing requirements for a new generation of human-rated spacecraft and then seeing to it that those requirements were met.

“What’s incredible about commercial crew is how dramatically we changed the strategy for human spaceflight access to low-Earth orbit,” Ordway said. “We saw that industry was in a place where they could be a reliable service provider and integrator and we could allow market forces to bring us a more attractive solutions to our needs. It has come to fruition and is enabling us to put together one of the most cost-effective programs of its kind.”

Those with the program knew they were being asked to conduct business in a non-traditional way.

“I think from a technical perspective, it really didn’t appear to be that daunting of a problem, but from a cultural perspective, it appeared to be huge,” said Donald Totton, deputy manager of the Spacecraft Office for commercial crew.

“I had a lot of optimism in what the program was doing,” said Jon Cowart, a shuttle veteran whose first task in the Commercial Crew Program was drafting requirements for the new spacecraft and launch vehicles. “I knew the private sector had the ability to do a lot of this very rapidly. They were already being very innovative.”

Collaboration with Industry

Based at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center with significant operations at Johnson Space Center in Houston and Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the commercial crew model tied together experts across the agency’s field centers to establish requirements and approval methods through four progressively more complex development contracts.

“I am most impressed by the cross-agency team making it happen because what they are doing is very hard,” said Manning. “Human spaceflight has never been easy, and consequently, developing a new space transportation system continues to be a complex process.”

With a staff of about 300 – small for a human spaceflight development program – commercial crew relies heavily on specialized engineers across the nation to certify systems.

“We had to bridge across centers in a way that was really unique and the motivation was to be able to bring in the best talent in the agency wherever they were,” Ordway said.

The Commercial Crew Program staff took several cues from success on commercial cargo. In 2008, NASA awarded contracts to SpaceX and Orbital ATK to resupply the space station with cargo launched from the United States. The companies developed the rockets and spacecraft through public-private partnerships under the agency’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, an initiative that aimed to achieve safe, reliable and cost-effective commercial transportation to and from the space station and low-Earth orbit.

Eight companies played different parts in the Commercial Crew Program as Space Act Agreements began with broad concepts and subsystems that evolved into completed systems, spacecraft and launch vehicles that could meet the stringent demands of NASA’s human-rating process. For example, spacecraft had to have built-in launch escape systems, and rockets built to fire satellites into orbit had to have room for myriad sensors that could report health factors in split-second intervals, all for costs much lower than previous development efforts for such spacecraft.

“We wrote the requirements in such a way that our needs were met and that safety was a priority, but we didn’t want to constrain the companies,” Cowart said. ”We really were looking to unleash the power of industry and innovation.”

A precursor effort, known as Commercial Crew Development or CCDev, was started in 2010 with five industry partners. But, the Commercial Crew Program was formally established on April 5, 2011, marking five years this month. It took a total of five development and later certification phases to get to the point in September 2014 when NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build systems capable of carrying up to four astronauts plus time-critical cargo to the station. Starliner and Crew Dragon were chosen to begin manufacturing for flight tests and prepare for crew rotation missions.

“One of the biggest paradigm shifts for NASA in commercial crew is developing new human space transportation systems under a fixed-price model,” Manning said. “This has never been done before for a program of this magnitude, moreover with two partners in parallel.”

Each phase helped companies refine their systems as development advanced. Major systems such as avionics, parachutes and launch escape systems came first, then designs for complete rockets and spacecraft, then to the mission control systems the companies would use to oversee missions from the ground. Each phase also expanded the review scope and expertise needed for Commercial Crew Program staff that would certify that the requirements were met.

“The interesting thing that I think was really done well was that our technical requirements were known and remained at a high level,” Totton said. “Our technical management process requirements were also at a high level and allowed significant flexibility to our providers to develop and operate these systems. We gave industry a lot of freedom while maintaining safety.”

Totton says few requirements have changed as the systems and processes have matured, and he predicts the program will become a model for government giving industry the flexibility to develop a service.

“Eventually spaceflight will, I hope, be looked at as similar to the commercial airlines we fly on every day,” he said.