Kathy Lueders Talks Commercial Crew, Tech Transfer on Steroids

Kathryn Lueders

Commercial Crew Manager Kathy Lueders recently appeared on “Houston We Have a Podcast”, which is the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center. The program was published on the space agency’s on June 15.

You can listen to the full podcast and read a transcript of the interview here. Below are key excepts from the conversation.

Progress on Commercial Crew

Kathy Lueders: They have their — spacecraft is really, really cool right now. I can’t tell you– go out to SpaceX, you see spacecraft in the building, one– our DM1 vehicle’s getting ready to roll out to go to Plum Brook in a week and a half. [Editor’s note: DM-1 is now undergoing tests at Plum Brook.]

You go over into the C3PF down in Florida and the Boeing spacecraft, you get C3 spacecraft, the Spacecraft 1’s getting ready to get shipped out to go support pad abort test. Spacecraft 2’s getting ready to get shipped to California to go through environmental testing and that will eventually come back and become our first crewed flight test vehicle. And Spacecraft 3 is getting assembled and will be getting ready to fly later this year.

So, it’s– we have– it’s really, really cool. We have six spacecraft in different stages of construction and really final integration and testing right now to support all the critical system-level tests, but also for the demonstration test.

Flight Schedule

Crew Dragon undergoes tests at Plum Brook. (Credit: SpaceX)

Now, we are– they’re both getting ready for their uncrewed demonstrations and they’re both shooting for this fall for the uncrewed demonstrations. And then, within three of four months, both of them are planning to fly their crewed demonstration missions after the uncrewed demonstration missions…

One of the things we just did a few months ago was we just added the capability contractually for Boeing to be able to– if everything goes well on their orbital flight– their uncrewed flight test– for them to be able to potentially stay up longer for their crewed flight test.

What that does is it gives them — it gives us potential additional capability, but then it also lets them have if they need more time to then get their orbital flight test vehicle back, they use that vehicle again, so it gives them more time to then be able to refurbish that vehicle and get that vehicle ready for then their first post-certification mission. Which right now is in the 2019 — late 2019, early 2020 timeframe.

CST-100 Starliner and Dragon Capabilities

Inside Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a technician works on one of the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

[Boeing] actually have proposed a fifth seat, so we have a fifth seat capability. We right now are focused on kind of optimizing it for our mission, which is the four seat and the cargo for that, but they actually proposed a fifth seat.

And then the SpaceX, we’re working a four-seat with all our cargo complement, but they actually also advertised seven, commercially. So, it’s always– you can go– what’s really cool, you can go on websites and see what commercially they’re offering and then we can, you know, we’ve kind of optimized for our mission certain cargo complements, certain crew complements that kind of support the station mission.

On Human-rating Atlas V and Falcon 9

There is a lot of extra work. You know — and, you know, both– like always, the two companies have kind of taken it a little bit different route. Really with Atlas V they’ve gone — really they have their proven reliability, they’ve been doing their systems a certain way, and so we’ve been really working with them on working through all the certifications and understanding and building off of really what the Air Force folks have already done and our own NASA Launch Services Program folks have been doing to go make sure that all the human rating requirements that we need for crew launches– that they’re still meeting them.

And the SpaceX folks, they’ve been doing a major upgrade for their Block 5 upgrade and as part of that they’ve added — they chose to add some additional redundancy in parts of their vehicle to be able to fly crew.

“Tech Transfer on Steroids”

I kind of view the Commercial Crew Program as like tech transfer on steroids. That’s how I kind of view it, right? Because we have really been like the conduit for providing, you know, the 50 years of NASA human spaceflight experience to both these companies. And allowing them to have that is really the great thing about NASA going and doing this exploration– I mean we are still using the data off of the early manned flights.

You know, Apollo has been a wealth of experience for both these companies and all the chute testing and all the tests that they did, you know, amazing amount of experience. So, as we’re doing these missions, you just don’t know that 30, 40 years that that data is still relevant and helpful for us to then be able to then– for these companies, it would have been cost-prohibitive for them to have been able to go and replicate all the data and what we learned out of doing those, you know, early human spaceflight missions with the capsule designs. I mean they really, really learned from that….

There’s definitely been a lot of digging and pulling data and pulling everything. You know, the companies will come in and say, hey, we’re having this kind of a problem and having people that have been out there and have learned and said, hey, I had that problem, you know, this is what we did, but most importantly,

On Commercial Crew Requirements

NASA astronaut Suni Williams in a Crew Dragon simulator.

We tried not to have requirements that were prescriptive, but what we wanted to make sure is that the systems that they had in place controlled the hazards that were — that the vehicles expose the crew to. And that they had the necessary hazard controls in place for us to be able to put crews on their vehicles. And so, really, this has been a kind of an arduous process with the providers is that you don’t typically have to do that for the payloads.

But, for crew, we’ve had to go through a safety review process with both companies where we’re going through, OK, how do you get ready for launch, how do you process a vehicle, and then how are you making sure that– and that you’re listing all of the hazards that are involved….

We’ve gone through kind of an extensive process where they’ve listed their hazards and then what are all their controls and then how are we going to verify those controls. That’s been probably the biggest part of our requirements. That is, really making sure that they have controls for their hazards in place.

With human rating requirements, we have a list of standards that engineering or SNMA have come in and said for them to be human rated you have to show compliance to those standards, to the human standards. But– so this has been a big challenge for the program because, one, we don’t really want– we would like to have their standards really– them be able to operate to their standards.

We don’t want a special group of standards because we would really like– if they’ve been flying reliably, it would be good to continue processing in that way. So, the big challenge that the program’s had is going and comparing the commercial provider standards to our standards and saying do these meet the intent. And maybe there’s been a few small focused areas where we’ve had to work with the providers on, but overall I think both providers have had– have had good standards, good processes, and been able to work it.

Approach and Docking with ISS

Dragon 2 docks with the International Space Station.

So, I think both of them are fairly autonomous. If you think about it, it kind of goes back to once again the commercial concept. Right? If you’re a company that wants to have control over how your vehicle is operating and with the capabilities they have today, with computer– the processing capability and everything else– they’re really developing very sophisticated autonomous rendezvous and docking and reentry capabilities.

And so, really crew is there as a monitoring function and back up in case some– like something really goes wrong, but these, they’re really– both companies are designing their spacecraft to be two-fault tolerant to a failure. All along the way. Very robust, which is really our intent. We wanted to have very robust vehicles. Right? Very robust vehicles. We asked them to design their vehicles to be two-fault tolerant and to not have crew as a control. So, we– that was a– kind of goes back to safe and reliability being kind of important tenets and the companies have really come through.

They have different strategies for how they do that and they’ll be checking out that autonomous capability on their first demonstrations because they’ll be uncrewed [phonetic]. They’ll be uncrewed demonstrations to the ISS, so that will kind of prove out that autonomous capability.

I always tell people I’m– I know we’ve got self-driving cars out there, but I’m really hoping that before they roll out their first commercial one, the first commercial self-driving crew vehicle that’s being bought by the government is going to be a crew transportation vehicle that’s going to the ISS and so–

Reentry & Landing

The Boeing Starliner program has performed more than 20 landing tests to determine how the vehicle would fare on land. (Credits: NASA / Dave Bowman)

Boeing is going to be landing on the western part, they have five landing sites on the western part of the United States. Kind of ranges from California– you know, all your, like, the Dugway, Wismer [assumed spelling], all the, you know, the open desert kind of areas.

And then SpaceX is going to be– they’re looking at two water landing sites near the– off the Florida coast on both sides of the Florida coast, and so kind of trying to give themselves kind of as many options as possible. Primary is off the east coast of Florida right now.

Other Missions in Addition to ISS Crew Rotation

We’ll see what other kinds of missions. You know, we’re in the process right now of understanding how do we commercially use the space station and so we already are working with both providers on maybe they have other passengers or other missions or other things that they’re working on proposing and so we’re really hoping that, through us using these folks, that that then will jumpstart– potentially jumpstart their use by other providers. And then kind of, you know, provide a platform for other commercial and research and other uses in low-Earth orbit….

I always tell people, space is not for– just for– is not just for NASA anymore. Space is not just for NASA anymore. It is for all of us. It is for every American. It is for you. It is for my children.  It is for all of us. It’s just not there for somebody with a gold badge.