Inside the Operations and Checkout Building high bay at Kennedy Space Center, technicians install a back shell tile panel onto the Orion crew module, and check the fit next to the middle back shell tile panel in preparation for Exploration Flight Test-1. (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025, and to Mars in the 2030s. While robotic explorers have studied Mars for more than 40 years, NASA’s path for the human exploration of Mars begins in low Earth orbit aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Astronauts on the ISS are proving many of the technologies and communications systems needed for human missions to deep space, including Mars. The ISS also advances understanding of how the body changes in space, and how to protect astronaut health.

Astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft will explore an asteroid in the 2020s, returning to Earth with samples. This experience in human spaceflight beyond low Earth orbit will help NASA test new systems and capabilities, such as Solar Electric Propulsion, which will be necessary to send cargo as part of human missions to Mars. Beginning in 2018, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket will enable these “proving ground” missions to test new capabilities. Human missions to Mars will rely on Orion and an evolved version of SLS that will be the most powerful launch vehicle ever flown.

Orion and SLS

For the first time in a generation, NASA is building a new human spacecraft that will usher in a new era of space exploration. Orion will take astronauts farther than ever before. The Orion spacecraft, which will carry up to four astronauts, is the safest, most advanced spacecraft ever built, and will be flexible and capable enough to take humans to a variety of destinations. Orion will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep-space return velocities. It will incorporate advances in propulsion, communications, life support, structural design, navigation, and power, drawing from the extensive spaceflight experience of NASA and its industry partners.

Orion awaits the U.S. Navy’s USS Anchorage after splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. Orion launched into space on a two-orbit, 4.5-hour test flight. (U.S. Navy)

On December 5, 2014, Orion launched atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral on a two-orbit, four-hour flight that tested many of the systems most critical to safety. The test evaluated launch and high-speed reentry systems such as avionics, attitude control, parachutes, and the heat shield. In the future, Orion will launch on the SLS heavy-lift rocket. More powerful than any rocket ever built, SLS will be capable of sending humans to deep-space destinations such as an asteroid and eventually Mars. Exploration Mission-1(EM-1) will be the first mission to integrate Orion and the Space Launch System. SLS offers the highest-ever payload mass, volume capability, and energy to speed missions through space. In 2015, NASA completed the critical design review for SLS — a first for a NASA exploration-class vehicle in almost 40 years — and continues to move forward with production of the launch vehicle.

A full-scale test version of the booster for the Space Launch System fired up for the second of two qualification ground tests. The first test was successfully completed in March 2015. When completed, two five-segment boosters and four RS-25 main engines will power the world’s most powerful rocket, with the Orion spacecraft atop. (Orbital ATK)

Orion’s first flight atop the SLS will not have humans aboard, but will pave the way for future missions with astronauts. Ultimately, it will help NASA prepare for missions to the Red Planet. During this flight, currently designated Exploration Mission-1, the spacecraft will travel thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of a three-week mission. Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station, and return home faster and hotter than ever before.

“This is a mission that truly will do what hasn’t been done and learn what isn’t known,” said Mike Sarafin, EM-1 mission manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “It will blaze a trail that people will follow on the next Orion flight, pushing the edges of the envelope to prepare for that mission.”

Commercial Crew Program

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is an innovative partnership to help the aerospace industry in the United States develop space transportation systems that can safely launch humans to low Earth orbit, and potentially astronauts to the International Space Station. Returning the capability to launch astronauts from American soil brings tremendous satisfaction for the team working toward this goal.

This was the first time NASA asked industry to take the lead in designing, building, and operating a space system that would carry astronauts. NASA offered its expertise in human spaceflight and wrote out the top-level requirements for safety and other considerations to prepare for flight tests. NASA will certify the vehicles for flight tests and finally operational missions. The companies apply their own knowledge and skills in designing, manufacturing, and running the systems. Ultimately, NASA will buy the flights as a service from the companies.

The upper and lower domes of the Starliner structural test article are joined inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility. (Boeing)

“This is a new way of doing business, a new era in spaceflight, and when it’s all said and done, the Commercial Crew Program’s legacy will be bringing human spaceflight launches back to the US,” said Kelvin Manning, who was involved in the early planning days of the commercial crew effort, and is now associate director of Kennedy Space Center. “That’s a big deal, and our teams are making it happen.”

The commercial crew model tied together experts across the agency’s field centers to establish requirements and approval methods through four progressively more complex development contracts. “Human spaceflight has never been easy, and consequently, developing a new space transportation system continues to be a complex process,” Manning explained.

Eight companies played different parts in the CCP program as Space Act Agreements began with broad concepts and subsystems that evolved into completed systems, spacecraft, and launch vehicles that could meet the stringent demands of NASA’s human-rating process. For example, spacecraft had to have built-in launch escape systems, and rockets built to fire satellites into orbit had to have room for myriad sensors that could report health factors in split-second intervals, all for costs much lower than previous development efforts for such spacecraft.

A precursor effort, known as Commercial Crew Development or CCDev, was started in 2010 with five industry partners. But, the Commercial Crew Program was formally established in 2011. It took a total of five development and later certification phases to get to the point in September 2014 when NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to build systems capable of carrying up to four astronauts plus time-critical cargo to the station. The Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon were chosen to begin manufacturing for flight tests and prepare for crew rotation missions.

“It’s really exciting to see SpaceX and Boeing with hardware in flow for their first crew rotation missions,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “It is important to have at least two healthy and robust capabilities from U.S. companies to deliver crew and critical scientific experiments from American soil to the space station throughout its lifespan.”

A SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft is being prepared for a test to simulate an emergency abort from the launch pad. The ability to escape from a launch or pad emergency and safely carry the crew out of harm’s way is a crucial element for NASA’s next generation of crew spacecraft. (SpaceX)

According to Manning, “One of the biggest paradigm shifts for NASA in commercial crew is developing new human space transportation systems under a fixed-price model. This has never been done before for a program of this magnitude, moreover with two partners in parallel.”

Each phase helped companies refine their systems as development advanced. Major systems such as avionics, parachutes, and launch escape systems came first, then designs for complete rockets and spacecraft, then to the mission control systems the companies would use to oversee missions from the ground. Each phase also expanded the review scope and expertise needed for CCP staff that would certify that the requirements were met.

As Boeing and SpaceX progress toward flight tests and operational missions for the Starliner and Crew Dragon, the space station team is anticipating the added research a larger crew will enable on the orbiting laboratory.

“The new spacecraft will enable space station to operate at its full capacity for research,” said Josie Burnett, who served as the deputy of the office that became the Commercial Crew Program, and is now director of Exploration Research and Technology programs at Kennedy. “The limiting factor for station research is crew time — it’s not cargo space or anything else.”

The station’s full complement would increase by one — from six residents to seven — allowing another 40 hours a week for science on the station, meaning the crew’s current research time allotment would double. That means double the amount of science that benefits people on Earth, as well as research to address the challenges of long-duration, deep-space missions on the journey to Mars.

The program’s effect also is helping Kennedy evolve as a spaceport tailored to industry needs for a variety of rockets and spacecraft, rather than a single mission. The benefit was not required, but a reflection of the unique possibilities at Kennedy, Manning said. “Our assets and the availability of an experienced workforce made a strong business case to come here,” Manning said. “As a result, with Boeing transforming Orbiter Processing Facility-3 into the manufacturing facility for the Starliner, and SpaceX modifying Launch Complex 39A for Falcon rockets and Crew Dragons, they are key components in the creation of Kennedy’s multi-user spaceport concept.”

Astronauts Suni Williams and Eric Boe evaluate part-task trainers for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner at the company’s St. Louis facility. (NASA/Dmitri Gerondidakis)

SpaceX’s crew transportation system, including the Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, has advanced through several development and certification phases. The company recently performed a critical design review, which demonstrated that the transportation system has reached a sufficient level of design maturity to work toward fabrication, assembly, integration, and test activities.

“The authority to proceed with Dragon’s first operational crew mission is a significant milestone in the Commercial Crew Program, and a great source of pride for the entire SpaceX team,” said Gwynne Shotwell, President and Chief Operating Officer of SpaceX. “When Crew Dragon takes NASA astronauts to the space station in 2017, they will be riding in one of the safest, most reliable spacecraft ever flown. We’re honored to be developing this capability for NASA and our country.”

Determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time. The contracts call for orders to take place prior to certification to support the lead time necessary for missions in late 2017, provided the contractors meet readiness conditions.

The Path to Flight

Hundreds of engineers and technicians with NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX have ramped up to complete the final designs, manufacturing, and testing as they continue the vital, but meticulous work to prepare to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. Halfway through 2016, the two companies are testing systems in more demanding, flight-like environments.

“We knew 2016 would be a critical year as Boeing and SpaceX build qualification and flight hardware, and test the integrated systems to ensure the rockets and spacecraft function as designed,” said Lueders. “Their careful design, analysis, and early prototype testing during the last several years has put us on the right course, and now we are excited to see flight hardware coming together. The companies are excited, too, but we know there are many steps ahead to successfully and safely complete these flight tests and begin operational missions to the International Space Station.”

A look through the open hatch of the Dragon V2 reveals the layout and interior of the seven-crew capacity spacecraft. The control panel wings down and locks in launch position after the crew is seated in their places. (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

According to John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager of Boeing’s Commercial Programs, “Our spacecraft design is in firm configuration, teams are conducting about one component qualification test per week, and Starliner crew and service modules are coming together in Florida. It’s an exciting time to be a part of American human spaceflight, and we’re looking forward to our first flight in 2017.”

The systems that will go into each spacecraft — such as avionics, flight computers, life support, communications, and numerous others — are being tested individually and in complex networks to make sure they do not interfere with each other.

A pool at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia was the site for simulated contingency water landings for Boeing’s Starliner. The testing enabled Boeing and NASA engineers to evaluate the capsule’s six perimeter airbags and uprighting capabilities. Starliner missions will normally land on land, so the same Starliner mockup will be dropped at another Langley facility to qualify the vehicle for land landings.

SpaceX has begun a campaign of parachute tests in which weight simulators with Crew Dragon parachutes and connectors are dropped from airplanes to determine their deployment behavior. Engineers use the results to feed computer models that can evaluate different deployment conditions, and indicate whether the hardware will work as designed in a host of flight conditions, including aborts.

State-of-the-Art Training

NASA has selected experienced astronauts Robert Behnken, Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley, and Sunita Williams to work closely with The Boeing Company and SpaceX to develop their crew and SpaceX Crew Dragon to ISS.

Williams and Boe tried out a new generation of training simulators at the Boeing facility in St. Louis to prepare them for launch, flight, and returns aboard the Starliner spacecraft. The part-task trainers, each large enough for one person at the controls and programmed to run through all the phases of a mission, are part of a suite of cloud-based and hands-on trainers that Boeing has built to prepare astronauts and mission controllers. The trainers will be shipped to Johnson Space Center in Houston so astronauts can use them daily to practice numerous situations from normal operations to unlikely emergencies.

“These simulators have touchscreen displays, which means they are more versatile than previous spacecraft trainers,” said Williams. “We can run multiple simulations by just changing software and then put that same software into a bigger crew simulator, which we will use to train the whole crew for a spaceflight.”

When wired into the extensive Boeing and NASA networks, the simulators will interact with launch and mission controllers to run rehearsals that are critical to preparing a crew to successfully fly a mission and recover from unforeseen events. Simulators will be built to cover all the aspects of spaceflight, from boarding the spacecraft at the launch pad, to safely climbing out at the end of the mission. Just as it was for the flight portions of mission preparation, the goal is to prevent the astronauts from being surprised.