Spaceflight Insider

Suni Williams details Commercial Crew Program progress during visit to NASA’s Plum Brook Station

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams before her presentation about the space agency's Commercial Crew Program. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams before her presentation about the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA Commercial Crew Astronaut Suni Williams was the special guest speaker last week at an Open House Event held at NASA’s Plum Brook Station testing facility in Sandusky, Ohio. Plum Brook Station is the sister facility of the NASA Glenn Research Center in nearby Cleveland. During her visit, Williams provided an update on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The two-time space flight veteran addressed an audience of about 250 visitors at the event, the first such event held at Plum Brook Station since 2008. Organizers estimate that the event drew more than 20,000 visitors total.

Williams spoke mostly of her previous experiences in space during ISS Expeditions 14/15 in 2006 and Expeditions 32/33 in 2012. She spoke briefly of her current involvement in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), but Spaceflight Insider sat down with her for a more lengthy discussion on the topic.

NASA astronaut Sunita Williams before her presentation about the space agency's Commercial Crew Program. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

Williams noted that experienced astronauts are working side-by-side with NASA’s commercial partners to get privately-produced spacecraft to be capable of sending crews to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: Michael Cole / SpaceFlight Insider

CCP came about in this decade as NASA made it a priority to begin transitioning operations in low-Earth orbit to private commercial aerospace companies. With the end of the Shuttle program in 2011, NASA became dependent on its Russian space partners to provide transportation for our astronauts to the International Space Station. Developing new spacecraft to send our own astronauts to the ISS was something NASA believed private industry was ready to do while NASA concentrated its energies and resources more on exploratory endeavors and the Mission to Mars.

“Our Russian partners picked up the ball and said they would provide transportation for the astronauts to go live on the space station,” Williams told Spaceflight Insider. “And that made sense because in the whole plan anyway, there was always a Soyuz docked to the space station as the life raft. If anything happened, you could always jump in the Soyuz and come home.”

The Russian partnership has been beneficial and has kept our astronauts in space. The lag in time between the end of the Shuttle program and the development of new American spacecraft to take our astronauts to the station has been a source of some frustration and a not insignificant blow to national pride, especially as the price of a ticket aboard the Soyuz for our astronauts has continued to climb. However, the wait may prove to pay multiple dividends, for both NASA and the commercial space industry.

“We want to get out the business of transportation to low-Earth orbit because we’ve done that before,” Williams said. “The belief is that commercial companies can provide this hardware, maybe smarter, maybe faster than we can, given the technologies that we’ve already laid the groundwork for in the past with the Shuttle and other programs.”

Beginning in 2010, NASA used a series of contracts through Space Act Agreements to establish partnerships with commercial aerospace companies. NASA believed these companies could ultimately provide the commercial crewed spacecraft that would become the new transportation system for American astronauts to and from the ISS.

“There was already this vibe around in the commercial companies,” Williams said. “It made sense to put in the seed money to say to these companies that we want to take astronauts to the space station, and we’d like to turn it over to commercial companies to do that. We will be your user, we told them, on your spacecraft. We wanted to leverage off of the technology advances that we’ve made in the last thirty years and let these companies just go with it. That’s what we are seeing in other private sectors of technology and aircraft. We want them to take that technology and come up with bigger, better, and smarter ways of building and flying spacecraft.”

Astronauts Suni Williams and Doug Hurley evaluate the flight deck of a SpaceX Crew Dragon in a spacecraft mockup at the company's Hawthorne, California, headquarters.

Astronauts Suni Williams and Doug Hurley evaluate the flight deck of a SpaceX Crew Dragon in a spacecraft mockup at the company’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters. Photo Credit: SpaceX

In September 2014, two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contracts were awarded – $4.2 billion to Boeing for the development of their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, and $2.6 billion to SpaceX for the development of their Crew Dragon. The construction and testing of those spacecraft are now well underway. The first uncrewed orbital test for the CST-100 Starliner is currently scheduled for December 2017, with its first crewed test flight to follow in February 2018. SpaceX recently announced they are planning for an uncrewed test of the Crew Dragon in December 2016, followed by a crewed test flight in April 2017.

Williams, along with Eric Boe, Doug Hurley, and Robert Behnken, were selected as the Commercial Crew astronauts in July 2015. They are all veterans of either one or both of the earlier Shuttle or ISS missions. Their training and role in the program are generally similar to that of the traditional NASA astronauts of today and the recent past, but there are some differences.

“What we basically have are badges to go to both the companies that we’ve down-selected and see what they’re doing and try to provide any kind of assistance we can and talk through their design,” Williams said. “Both companies have an astronaut who has flown before, Garrett Reisman for SpaceX and Chris Ferguson for Boeing, but they are fully involved in the programmatic part of the spacecraft’s development, not just in how the crew interacts with the spacecraft.”

“I feel like we have a really good relationship with the companies,” she said. “They appreciate our insight. But it’s their product and their engineers. They have to develop it. It’s their ideas. We just have to make sure that they make a safe spacecraft for us to repetitively go to the space station in.”

Williams would not go so far as to say that they have a larger “consulting” role than traditional astronauts.

“With the spaces, I’m sure in the beginning the first couple of crews had a lot to say about it. Different design issues and how they would interact with it,” she said. “This time, in this program, I wouldn’t say we have a huge consulting role, but they do recognize that we are the users, and we need to understand exactly what they are doing. I think they more bounce things off of us to make sure the way they are designing it makes sense to us.”

An example she cited was the cockpit touch screen technology that will be aboard both spacecraft. Williams recently got her first opportunity to work with the new instrumentation design on a new simulator at the Boeing facility in St. Louis.

“It’s all touch screen,” she said. “The spacecraft is not like that. It will have some touch screen, but it also has switches, and it has displays which use line select keys and sensory knobs. But the ability for touch screens to be part of the process is really interesting and allows a lot of flexibility. With hard switches and hard line select keys on the side you have less opportunity to change things. I say that with some hesitation because everybody says ‘It’s just software’ and software isn’t easy either. But at least you don’t have to change out the whole physical structure of the thing when you change it.”

Astronaut Suni Williams evaluates Starliner control systems using a part-task trainer that simulates aspects of flight for the Boeing-made spacecraft.

Astronaut Suni Williams evaluates Starliner control systems using a part-task trainer that simulates aspects of flight for the Boeing-made spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA / Dimitri Gerondidakis

Williams and Eric Boe trained on the instrumentation simulator at Boeing in St. Louis last month. The same simulator model will be used for single-system training, as well as integrated training with Mission Control. Boeing will have its own Mission Control based off of the model from NASA’s Flight Operations Directorate. People from NASA’s Flight Operations Directorate will essentially be going to work for Boeing. The interaction between Mission Control and the crew will, therefore, be very similar to that during Shuttle missions.

“That simulation will all take place at Johnson Space Center,” Williams said. “So we checked out the simulators in St. Louis first before they were delivered to Johnson.”

Williams said that the instrumentation for the Crew Dragon is going to be mostly touch screen. It is expected to have a lot fewer buttons and switches in the cockpit. SpaceX recently released a video on its website that depicts what they expect the cockpit will look like.

“It is pretty slick,” Williams said. “That’s sort of the model of SpaceX. They want everything to be very slick and easy enough for people to understand and interact with.”

The Commercial Crew astronauts will also not be wearing the orange ACES “pumpkin suits” that the public has become accustomed to seeing them wear for launch aboard past shuttle missions. The two Commercial Crew spacecraft will have their own spacesuits designed by the companies.

“For each company, that’s part of their system,” Williams said. “Each of them [has] their own way of coming up with a suit because it has to be compatible with the environmental control system of their spacecraft. That, then, is unique to each spacecraft. Just like the difference between Shuttle and Soyuz. Different suits for different spacecraft.”

It is still too early in spacecraft development and program maturation to make the astronaut flight assignments. Crewed flights are still a year-and-a-half to two years in the future. Williams believes the flight assignments will be made when the crewed flights are about one year away.

“The first two test flights of each spacecraft will have two astronauts on them,” Williams said. “The first flight to the space station, the crew will probably only spend ten to twenty days. And on the second flight, the crew will probably stay longer, up to six months. Those two flights for each spacecraft should prove out everything on the launch, rendezvous, docking, undocking and re-entry on the spacecraft.”

Regardless of when the assignments are made, Williams says she is ready to go.

“The four of us are learning as much as we can as the process goes along,” she said, “because once the flights start it’s going to be fast and furious.”

Video Courtesy of NASA Kennedy


Michael Cole is a life-long space flight enthusiast and author of some 36 educational books on space flight and astronomy for Enslow Publishers. He lives in Findlay, Ohio, not far from Neil Armstrong’s birthplace of Wapakoneta. His interest in space, and his background in journalism and public relations suit him for his focus on research and development activities at NASA Glenn Research Center, and its Plum Brook Station testing facility, both in northeastern Ohio. Cole reached out to SpaceFlight Insider and asked to join SFI as the first member of the organization’s “Team Glenn.”

Reader Comments

First the Russians sent dogs, then the USA sent monkeys.

Someday, someone will come up with something useful only a human can achieve in space, and when that day happens, people will be going to space in droves.

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