Spaceflight Insider

NASA’s Commercial Crew partners working to return launches to U.S. soil

Artist concept representing NASA's Commercial Crew Program. Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP ) partners are working in wind tunnels, software laboratories and other work stations across the country to continue to produce U.S. spacecraft and rocket designs in order to launch humans from U.S. soil  into low-Earth orbit as early as 2017.

As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Round 2 and Commercial Crew Integrated Capability initiatives, the Boeing Company, Blue Origin, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) are all working hard to accomplish goals set by the Space Act Agreements.

ULA's Atlas V rocket with NRLO-33 satellite. Photo Credit; Mike Howard/Spaceflight Insider

ULA’s Atlas V rocket with NRLO-33 satellite. Photo Credit; Mike Howard/Spaceflight Insider

This year brings challenging evaluations and tests of next generation manned spacecraft. The CCP’s engineering team, along  with the CCP’s partners are working together to meet these challenges. Eventually, NASA intends to end our reliance on Russia to get to space and plans to certify and utilize American-made commercial systems to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

“What we have seen from our industry partners is a determination to make their components and systems work reliably, and in turn they’ve been able to demonstrate the complex machinery that makes spaceflight possible will also work as planned,” said Kathy Lueders, Commercial Crew Program manager. “These next few months will continue to raise the bar for achievement by our partners.”

In April, Boeing completed a detailed evaluation of the software needed to operate the CST-100 spacecraft. The evaluation, known as a critical design review (CDR), confirmed the software’s coding can be used in test flights. Software is one of the most important elements on any spacecraft; it is crucial for automated systems, and is capable of performing split-second commands.

As part of a design refinement process, SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft recently went through a series of rigorous wind tunnel tests at several facilities across the country. The vehicle’s reaction to subsonic, transonic and supersonic conditions, similar to those experienced during its ascent and re-entry, was carefully studied as well as its reaction during various configurations – including the launch stack of Dream Chaser atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket.

Sierra Nevada Corporations' Dream Chaser Orbital Spacecraft at NASA Dryden. Photo Credit: NASA

Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser Orbital Spacecraft at NASA Dryden. Photo Credit: NASA

Major hardware and software elements of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket were studied in April as part of an integrated critical design review. The CDR considered previous reviews of the vehicle designs as well as system testing.

As with building any complex structure, these advancements lay the foundation for future accomplishments on our path a new, complete space transportation system. Blue Origin is currently working on an interim design review for a new bionic spacecraft’s subsystems, that may one day carry humans into low-Earth orbit.

In the coming months, Boeing will complete a CDR addressing all elements of the manned spacecraft, rocket, along with ground and mission operations.

SNC will soon share its results from the testing of Dream Chaser’s reaction control system motors and main engine motor tests at their Poway, California facility.

SpaceX is in the process of developing the hardware needed for testing of Dragon’s launch abort system later this year. During the testing, the system will be put through simulated emergencies, ensuring it will work properly in the unlikely event of a launch mishap or any mishap during its ascent into orbit.

Accomplishments such as these by CCP’s partners continue to propel commercial spacecraft and transportation systems from mere designs to reality. The continued successes of NASA and American aerospace companies are ensuring a new generation of space transportation capabilities and generating new opportunities for humans to live and work in space.


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