NASA, Boeing may evolve flight test strategy
(5 April 2018 - NASA) NASA has updated its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract with Boeing, which provides flexibility in its commercial flight tests. Boeing, one of the agency’s two commercial crew partners, approached NASA last year and proposed adding a third crew member on its Crew Flight Test (CFT) to the International Space Station.
The change includes the ability to extend Boeing’s CFT from roughly two weeks to up to six months as well as the training and mission support for a third crew member. Cargo capabilities for the uncrewed and crewed flight tests were also identified.
Exact details of how to best take advantage of the contract modification are under evaluation, but the changes could allow for additional microgravity research, maintenance, and other activities while Starliner is docked to station. Adding a third crew member on Boeing’s flight test could offer NASA an additional opportunity to ensure continued U.S. access to the orbital laboratory.
An artist image of the Boeing Starliner spacecraft docking to the International Space Station. (courtesy: Boeing)
“This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate 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. Commercial space transportation to low-Earth orbit from U.S. soil is critical for the agency and the nation.”
The current commercial crew flight schedules provide about six months of margin to begin regular, post-certification crew rotation missions to the International Space Station before NASA’s contracted flights on Soyuz flights end in fall 2019.
“Turning a test flight into more of an operational mission needs careful review by the technical community,” said Gerstenmaier. “For example, the spacecraft capability to support the additional time still needs to be reviewed. Modifying the contract now allows NASA and Boeing an opportunity to tailor the duration to balance the mission needs with vehicle and crew capabilities.”
This would not be the first time NASA has expanded the scope of test flights. NASA had SpaceX carry cargo on its commercial cargo demonstration flight to the International Space Station under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) initiative in 2012, which was not part of the original agreement. As part of its normal operations planning, NASA has assessed multiple scenarios to ensure continued U.S. access to the space station. The agency is working closely with its commercial partners and is preparing for potential schedule adjustments normally experienced during spacecraft development.
“Our partners have made significant progress on the development of their spacecraft, launch vehicle, and ground systems,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Their rigorous testing and analysis are verifying each system performs and reacts as planned as they prepare to safely carry our astronauts to and from the station.”
Boeing and SpaceX plan to fly test missions without crew to the space station this year prior to test flights with a crew onboard. After each company’s test flights, NASA will evaluate the in-flight performance in order to certify the systems and begin regular post-certification crew rotation missions.