At the annual meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in Detroit on January 14, 1959, NASA’s first Administrator, Dr. T. Keith Glennan, said: “I can imagine a remote future when spaceflight, in some form, might become nearly as commonplace as air travel is today.”
In 2014, NASA’s parallel path for human spaceflight took a giant leap forward when the agency announced U.S. astronauts once again would travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) from the United States on American spacecraft under groundbreaking contracts through NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. The agency selected Boeing and SpaceX to transport U.S. crews to and from the ISS using their CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, with a goal of ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia in 2017.
Kathryn Lueders is Program Manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. She oversees program facilitation of commercial spacecraft development and certification to enable the safe transportation of NASA astronauts.
We recently spoke to Kathryn about the goals NASA has already achieved, and what’s to come.
NASA Tech Briefs: Other than no longer relying on Russian crew transportation, what were the main factors behind NASA’s push to commercialize access to space?
Kathryn Lueders: We’re trying to expand the nation’s industrial base. Our efforts to mature U.S. capabilities to be able to deliver crews to low-Earth orbit (LEO) have been successful. The investment the nation has made through the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap), and now in our final certification phase, has really touched and grown parts of industry across the country.
From a NASA perspective, we’ve always viewed ourselves as a little of the R&D budget of the nation, so this was a particular area that, post-shuttle, we invested in from an Orion and exploration perspective. Getting industry to be able to establish their capabilities to provide crew transportation — that all helps the sub-orbital industry, too. That was really another major goal of the program.
NTB: This seems to be a significant shift in the Agency’s traditional spacecraft development program. How is this partnership different from the way NASA has always worked with private industry in the past to build spacecraft — shifting so much of the responsibility to industry?
Lueders: We tried a couple of different ways to commercialize NASA capabilities, and I remember the effort of trying to commercialize the shuttle in the 1990s. What you find out is that it’s very difficult when NASA capabilities are so geared to a specific NASA need to then try to turn that over to somebody else to develop their commercial needs. We’re allowing each of the commercial companies to determine their strategies to meet our needs, but also to look at what other needs they’d like to meet with their designs.
In the past, we built the NASA capabilities and then figured out how that fit back in with what other people needed. Instead, with Commercial Crew, we just put our NASA requirements out there so companies understood what we will need, but then could build what other capabilities they wanted to have that will help their business case.
If your end goal, in either case, is to get to a commercial operation, I think having it start from the beginning, where the companies own their strategies, is more effective.
NTB: You have to start with partners technologically advanced enough to meet the stringent NASA design review requirements.
Lueders: What I like about this model is that we made sure the contractors really understood our requirements and that they understood, when they were bidding for fixed-price contracts, what it was going to take for them to be able to meet our requirements and put that in their proposals. They were able to propose their concepts and each of them had their unique capabilities that went along with those concepts, as well as meeting our core requirements.
If we would have done this the traditional NASA way, and just had a core set of requirements, that’s all they would have met. But each proposal came in with unique capabilities that were above and beyond just the core set that NASA set as the bar. They were viewing other uses for their vehicles and keeping in mind other potential customers for their concepts. The big challenge from a NASA perspective was to make sure that our core set of requirements was as lean as possible while also allowing the partners to meet our needs with as much flexibility as possible to also meet other customers’ needs.
If we said that we’d only take a winged vehicle, or we’ll only take a capsule design, that would have been very limiting within the competition.
NTB: One concern about private companies taking humans to space is safety. In light of recent accidents and equipment malfunctions, does NASA have a more important role in ensuring that industry will be able to provide safe human access to space?
Lueders: Our requirements are the same, and the job we’re going to do is the same. What we need to balance is how you work through the test flights while you’re learning about the vehicle, and how you make those as safe as possible while meeting your test objectives.
What we, as a nation, need to start understanding is sometimes as you’re working through that initial understanding of the vehicle, there are times when you’ll learn something about the conditions under which the equipment is operating that you may not have understood at the time you did the test. That’s why we lost test pilots in the 1960s — because we fly with people to check out the system. Within our contracts, we require that you have a test flight with a minimal crew —with one NASA crew member. But it’s important to check it out on a test flight to make sure the concept works. Sometimes there are things you don’t know about until you get into a flight.
We’ve tried to put requirements in so that even if you run into a malfunction during critical periods of the flight, you can still come back with the core requirements and our emergency reentry requirements. We’ve also required that they have a level of design redundancy so they’re not dependent on a single failure.
As a nation, we’ve got to understand that these people are pioneers. We lost a lot of people going out in covered wagons, and these people are heroes because they’re pushing the envelope for us. When you push the envelope, sometimes you lose people. We’ve taken all the experience we can and put it into the requirements to develop the safest system we think can deliver a crew back and forth, but we also know that space is hard. You’ve seen a few of those examples of how hard it is. Honestly, we’re very grateful that there are people out there who continue to try to do it.
We’ve been so successful for the most part that people tend to forget that when you’re pushing the envelope, there’s risk involved. We try to reduce the risk as much as we can on the ground by checking the systems with our redundancy requirements, but there is still the chance that there is something we may not know about until we fly.
We’ve always had contractors and industry supporting us. We wouldn’t have gone to the Moon without the companies that delivered those systems. We’ve had several discussions with the folks that ran Gemini, and at the time, there were one or two NASA folks with the whole contractor team overseeing some of those missions. We’ve depended on our contractors a lot — it’s not the first time we’ve done that. What we need to make sure of is that they’re meeting our requirements.
NTB: As the shuttle program was going full force in the 1980s, people got complacent thinking that it was routine, and there is nothing routine about spaceflight.
Lueders: That’s the hardest part of my job. If I’m lucky enough to have this job in three and a half years when we’re flying, I will have to accept the fact that the crew I just sent up may not come home. That’s the responsibility that Mike Suffredini has every day with the crew on the space station. When we send our crews up on the Soyuz, we’re saying that we’ve done the best we can to give them the best shot at coming back to their families. Exploring is hard, but we also know that the easiest way to not lose anybody is to never get off the ground.
As a nation, I think people understand that when you explore, and when you push the boundaries, there is risk. That’s why those astronauts are heroes — they step up and say, ‘I’m doing this for my country and I understand the risk, but I still think this is such a benefit to this nation that I’m willing to take that risk to further our nation’s capabilities.’
NTB: Are there any technologies that need to be developed or adapted by NASA or industry for this new program of human space transportation?
Lueders: We’ve made such huge technological advances on the ground in terms of electronics and avionics hardware, but a lot of those capabilities can’t be used in space because of the environment. SpaceX, for example, has been trying to adopt a key cornerstone of us moving into more cost-effective space transportation, and that’s the ability to be able to take advantage of smaller and smaller, and lighter and lighter components, but then we’re really not able to use them because of the radiation environment on orbit. I think there is huge potential in trying to figure out how to develop materials and capabilities that will allow us to use these smaller technologies in space, especially for critical applications.
On the space station, we use laptops and do radiation testing, but if a laptop shuts down, you can start it up again and keep going. We’re trying to find cost-effective ways to deliver rockets and spacecraft, and a big part of that is making sure that the boxes that are the backbone of the spacecraft are using the latest technologies. Right now, our parts technology is just not there. It sounds like kind of a mundane thing, but it’s really kind of avant garde. I give credit to SpaceX because until they really started pushing it, a lot of our basic part standards were 35 years old. Can you believe we’re using Mil standards and handbooks on electronic parts that are 35 years old? It’s such a key component to successfully be able to fly lighter and cheaper, and when you have these big, heavy boxes and the processors are slow, then we’re losing capability and flexibility, especially for LEO.
The technology for monitoring and controlling orbital debris — we felt we had to work through that because the more you want to increase access into space, it’s an issue we’ll have to deal with. We need to do it before we start flying into a LEO commercial model. If we’re really serious about it, having debris up there poses a huge hazard to the hardware flying up there.
The one thing I’ve been really impressed with, and a large part is being driven by having a large number of spacecraft flying, is how we use sensors to do rendezvous and docking. The companies have been advancing that capability because they’ve had more chances within our vehicles to rendezvous. That whole question of how we get light and cost-effective electronics boxes that can withstand the environment is huge.
We’re still working through materials. It’s interesting to see how 3D printing and additive manufacturing are really kicking in. We need to establish material standards for those manufacturing techniques. As you know, a lot of our requirements have this basis of manufacturing to standards that we understand the margins on, and when you add a new manufacturing capability, the first thing you have trouble with is what that means for material properties.
NTB: Is there a current timeline for final certification of a crew transportation system?
Lueders: Both Boeing and SpaceX have the goal of getting their systems certified by the end of 2017. We’re still working the schedules right now and we’ll continue to work the schedules, but the schedules they’re showing us right now indicate that they are both finishing up their demo flight to the space station by 2017. However, we won’t sacrifice safety for schedule.
Learn more about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program at www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial .