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NASA’s aerospace industry partners continue to meet milestones under agreements with the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), as they move forward in their development of spacecraft and rockets that will transport humans to destinations in low-Earth orbit.

Blue Origin, Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and SpaceX each are developing unique transportation systems, and each faces stringent evaluations and tests in 2014. CCP’s engineering team is working closely with its partners as they develop the next generation of crewed spacecraft. NASA intends to certify and use commercial systems to fly astronauts from U.S. soil to the International Space Station, and back.

“Already this year, NASA and its industry partners are making tremendous progress toward achieving the nation’s goal of restoring America’s capability to launch commercial passengers, including astronauts, from U.S. soil to low-Earth orbit,” said Kathy Lueders, CCP’s acting program manager. “This year, we’ll see hardware testing, flight demonstrations and the award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract. We’re excited for what the rest of this year holds and look forward to highlighting the tremendous progress our partners make to advance commercial human spaceflight.”

Working under Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) agreements with NASA, Boeing and SNC met key milestones in late December and throughout January. Boeing worked with United Launch Alliance to complete milestones in the development of an emergency detection system and launch vehicle adapter for the Atlas V rocket planned to launch Boeing’s CST-100.

“United Launch Alliance was an integral partner in both of these milestones, ensuring that the launch vehicle adapter and emergency detection system were fully functioning and safe for our future passengers,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs. “A tireless engineering development and analysis effort since the preliminary design review early last year has led to the success of two critical milestone completions.”

The CST-100’s emergency detection system is an integrated set of hardware and software that will operate with the avionics systems of the Atlas V rocket as it lifts off and ascends into orbit. In the event of a confirmed emergency, the detection system will send a signal to the CST-100 to trigger escape thrusters on the spacecraft to push the crew out of harm’s way and return them safely to Earth.

Engineers ran the software through a series of emergency scenarios to verify the performance of the escape system, carefully tracking how changes in one component might affect another. The launch vehicle adapter that connects the CST-100 to the top of the rocket also received significant attention during the critical design review. Boeing demonstrated that pilots could take over control of the CST-100 and fly it through various phases of a mission successfully.

Chris Ferguson, director of Boeing’s Crew and Mission Operations and former space shuttle commander, led the testing. Sitting inside a simulator replica of the spacecraft, Ferguson demonstrated how the CST-100’s flight computers would immediately relinquish control of the spacecraft to the pilot — a NASA requirement for crewed spacecraft destined low-Earth orbit. The feature is comparable to turning off the autopilot function of a commercial aircraft.

SNC’s team recently concluded an incremental critical design review of the Dream Chaser lifting body spacecraft and its related systems. The company also completed a database validation review based on data gathered during the company’s first free-flight test in October 2013. The review confirmed that the Dream Chaser flies and navigates as designed and can perform both controlled descents and landings.

“SNC’s Dream Chaser program is continuing its steady progress toward flight certification,” said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of SNC’s Space Systems.”By completing these important milestones, SNC is confident that our vehicle design is sound and that the spacecraft can successfully fly within established and expected flight boundaries. SNC is now advancing and upgrading the Dream Chaser test spacecraft in preparation for additional flight tests in 2014.”

All four of NASA’s industry partners continue to meet their established milestones in developing crew transportation systems and are preparing for several more. Blue Origin is preparing to complete its two remaining milestones under an unfunded Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev2) initiative extension. Later this year, NASA will review the company’s propellant tank assembly and subsystem interim design. The primary structure design of Boeing’s CST-100 will go through a critical design review that will determine if the spacecraft as a whole is ready for manufacturing. SNC is preparing for a review of data from numerous wind tunnel tests, which will further mature the Dream Chaser Space System design. In the coming months, SpaceX will host increasingly detailed reviews of the company’s integrated systems and progress on its ground systems. SpaceX also will conduct two flight tests of Dragon’s launch abort systems, powered by two SuperDraco thrusters that will push the spacecraft into the sky rather than pulling it up, as previous launch abort systems have done.

Milestones achieved by CCP’s partners continue to push commercial spacecraft and transportation systems from design to reality. The successes of NASA and American aerospace companies are ushering in a new generation of space transportation capabilities, which will enable new opportunities for humans to live and work in space.

For more information about CCP and its aerospace industry partners, visit:


Blue Origin Space Vehicle
Blue Origin’s Space Vehicle crew capsule following a successful test of its escape system in 2012.
Image Credit:
Blue Origin
Boeing's CST-100
A mockup of Boeing’s CST-100.
Image Credit:
The Boeing Company
SNC's Dream Chaser
The Dream Chaser engineering test article built by Sierra Nevada Corporation.
Image Credit:
NASA/Ken Ulbrich
SpaceX Dragon
An Erickson Sky Crane helicopter returns the SpaceX Dragon test article to Morro Bay, Cailf., following a test to evaluate the spacecraft’s parachute deployment system. in December 2013.
Image Credit:
NASA/Kim Shiflett

All four of NASA’s industry partners in the Commercial Crew Program are proceeding in the development of their own unique designs for spacecraft that could carry crews to low-Earth orbit. You can find out details about new milestones met during December and January here, plus what commercial achievements mean to the nation’s goal of returning humans to orbit on American spacecraft launched from U.S. soil.

Boeing’s Chris Ferguson, who commanded the space shuttle’s last mission, took to the controls inside a CST-100 simulator in January to show NASA engineers that the software will allow a human to take control of the spacecraft at any point in a mission following the CST-100′s separation from its booster. Called a pilot-in-the-loop demonstration, the accomplishment was performed in Houston to mark a milestone for the company under its Commercial Crew integrated Capability contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

CCP’s industry partners continue to make great strides as they design the next-generation of human spacecraft. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk released this photo yesterday of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the SpaceX-3 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station. The unusual feature is the landing legs on the side of the rocket. According to Musk, they are 60 feet in diameter. He said the booster will still land in the ocean, but will attempt what’s known as a soft landing instead of simply plummeting as such stages have done until now. The exception is the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters which parachuted into the water and were recovered for reuse. Musk has said before that his goal is to bring the spent first stage back to a soft landing on a runway or similar facility so the booster and its 9 engines can be used again. Musk ended his posts saying the company needs to prove precision control of the stage throughout the deceleration from hypersonic to subsonic speeds. There is no word whether this innovation is anticipated for crew-carrying missions as it is clearly early in the test phases of development.


Getting a spacecraft away from a rocket in a launch emergency is one of the toughest tasks handed to spacecraft designers and engineers. We talked in 2012 with some of the NASA managers, engineers and designers who were working through some of the challenges and potential solutions for Commercial Crew Program projects here. These systems will see critical tests coming up this year.

Launch Aborts Challenge Rocket Engineers

The Orion capsule was fitted with a LAS for a test abort.An Orion spacecraft built solely as a testbed is outfitted with a fully functional abort System ahead of a test launch to simulate a rapid escape from the launch pad. This system is an example of a “tractor” rocket because the engine is above the spacecraft and pulls it away from the rocket. Image credit: NASA
› Larger image

The MLAS system is tested

The Max Launch Abort System, a 33-foot-tall rocket, was launched in July 2009 to evaluate it for use in the Orion spacecraft program. The escape system is an example of a “pusher” escape system because the thrusters are below the spacecraft. Image credit: NASA
An Apollo capsule is pulled into the sky during abort test.
An Apollo Launch Escape System is test-fired in 1965. This escape rocket had 200,000 pounds of thrust, more than twice that of the Redstone rocket that lifted American Alan Shepard into space four years earlier. Image credit: NASAWhile companies design and perfect spacecraft and rockets to take people into space safely, teams of NASA engineers are deciphering what needs to happen if a launch goes wrong.

In other words, what kind of ejection system will astronauts need to survive?

“We’re trying to give the crew that last option for when things go bad,” said Brent Jett, deputy director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, or CCP, and four-time space shuttle astronaut.

Keep in mind that the system needs to work at all points during ascent, from the launch pad where the air is thick and the spacecraft is not moving at all, to more than 100 miles above Earth, where there is no discernable air and the spacecraft and crew are speeding along at 17,500 mph, or about 5 miles a second.

Also, consider that because rockets can malfunction and even explode within a second of the first problem, the ejection system needs to be able to spot a problem and get the spacecraft out of danger before it’s too late.

“Basically, you’re separating from the rocket with a smaller rocket and it’s a pretty extreme environment to put the crew into,” said Chris Gerace, deputy chief of CCP’s Systems Engineering and Requirements Office.

Setting up requirements for an abort system and designing a reliable one are no afterthought for engineers.

“This is one of the biggest emergency systems in the overall architecture of the commercial transportation system,” said Don Totton, a CCP systems engineer.

“It was definitely in my top five on my list in terms of making sure we got it right,” Jett said.

NASA’s work in the next generation of spacecraft abort systems is significantly different from past programs. Instead of designing a specific system for a given craft, the engineers are drawing objective requirements that private companies must meet to be considered for NASA missions.

“We ask ourselves, is it necessary and is it achievable,” Gerace said. “It’s always important to look at what you want with those two questions in mind.”

The agency also is funding some of the design work for the companies while offering its own extensive expertise under other partnerships, known as Space Act Agreements.

“To me, these guys are being very innovative,” Totton said. “They’ve all taken such different approaches and our requirements allow that. We’ve given them a lot of flexibility.” The criteria range from showing that the escaping spacecraft will not run into a tumbling or exploding rocket to proving that the escape will not put the astronauts through more than 15 g of force or pressure, or 15 times the force of gravity.

The crew also has to have a chance to override an abort command, or begin one even if the flight computer doesn’t sense a problem. The astronauts also will be able to take control of the spacecraft’s flight after computers handle the initial separation from the rocket. That will give the flight crew the ability to navigate through the complex realm of entry. Whoever is at the controls, whether it is a person or a computer, has to position the heat shield properly in an abort and slow the craft down safely so its parachutes can be deployed or land on a runway.

“Probably the only things we get in today that does not have a human being ready to step in and take control of that system is a monorail system at the airport or an elevator,” Jett said. “Everything else we get into for transportation – airplanes, trains – the human always has the ability to insert themselves into the system.”

Finding the right requirements was a new challenge for NASA, engineers said.

“We’re not designing a launch abort system, what we’re doing is, we’re saying, given the requirements and the goals that we’re trying to achieve, what are the objectives that an abort system needs to achieve,” Gerace said. “What we struggled with was, OK, how do we describe in objective terms what it is we’re trying to do?”

Totton said the team focused on aborting safely from two failures: if the rocket’s thrust is suddenly lost or the attitude vector veers off course.

“If it’s sized properly for those failure modes at all points in ascent, we’re going to get a very robust system,” Totton said.

To meet those requirements, designers at individual companies are developing powerful rockets and computer networks that can sense trouble and then carry the whole spacecraft and crew away from the failing rocket to a safe landing. It will be up to NASA to judge whether they will work.

“The type of abort system individual companies choose will depend on a variety of engineering design factors. Ultimately, it’s about what approach is most efficient to meet requirements for a safe abort for their integrated spacecraft and rocket configuration,” said Wayne Ordway, CCP’s associate director and manager of the Spacecraft Office at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

There have been at least three occasions when a launch abort system was or would have been triggered. The Russian Soyuz spacecraft and rocket fired their escape rocket on two occasions and successfully rescued the crew, one of which from an explosion on the launch pad. In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger broke up during ascent when a joint on one of its solid rocket boosters failed to seal and exhaust leaked out and ruptured the external fuel tank.

The space shuttle did not use a dedicated launch abort system, but was programmed with abort modes that would allow it to return and land safely in certain scenarios.

Each of those cases offer little to today’s designers. Very few specifics are known about the Soyuz aborts, so it’s hard to use them to confirm computer models, Totton said. In the case of Challenger, the space shuttle is such a different design from the designs under consideration that it is wouldn’t be useful to compare them.

In the past, NASA incorporated rockets on a tower above the capsule for Mercury and Apollo. The launch escape system for Apollo used a solid-fueled rocket that, at 200,000 pounds thrust, was more powerful than the Redstone that launched Alan Shepard into space. Those designs are generally known as “tractor rockets” because they pull the spacecraft away from the rocket. The rocket is jettisoned before the spacecraft reaches orbit.

Designs with the rockets below the spacecraft are known as “pushers.”

Each system has advantages and disadvantages compared to the other. For example, an Apollo-style tractor rocket mounted atop the capsule can allow more mass to be taken into orbit, Totton said. A tower also ignites quickly and builds up its thrust very fast to escape danger. On the other hand, if there is not an abort, the tower is thrown away.

A pusher system, with all the weight of the spacecraft above it instead of below, can put more pressure on the computers controlling the abort during the critical first second or so when the spacecraft is getting away from the rocket.

Think of balancing a baseball bat on the palm and how many adjustments it takes to keep it balanced.

On the plus side, the engines and propellant not used in an abort can still be used by the spacecraft once it reaches orbit. SpaceX, for example, has expressed interest in using the engines at landing to make pinpoint returns to a pad on Earth after a mission.

“A pusher becomes very synergetic to the overall mission,” Gerace said.

Previously, liquid-fueled pusher engines were not practical for an abort system because they didn’t build up thrust quickly enough. Jett said engine technology advances have closed that gap, though.

Boeing and engine maker Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne successfully tested the Bantam abort engine that is the basis of a pusher escape system. NASA’s Orion spacecraft performed well in a test of its escape system, a traditional tractor rocket tower.

Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin also anticipate using pusher systems. NASA is working under unfunded Space Act Agreements with three companies, including United Launch Alliance, which is determining what will be necessary to make its Atlas V rocket acceptable to launch people. ATK and Excalibur Almaz also are working with NASA through unfunded agreements.

While deciding whether and how an abort would work during launch, designers also will examine the warning system in the rocket itself.

“That design process is every bit as important as the launch abort system design,” Gerace said.

They want to make sure the flight computers have the right information to find out if something major is wrong, but not so much information that a perfect flight is accidentally abandoned.

The Apollo flight computers looked at between nine and 13 things during a launch to determine if the flight should be aborted. Space shuttle main engine computers looked at dozens of things several times a second and modern rocket computers can add more to that.

“In selecting abort triggers, we have to balance the risk between performing the abort and not aborting when we don’t need to,” Totton said.

The next generation of U.S. spacecraft is not expected to venture into space with people on board until 2015 or so, but there is plenty of work for designers as they refine their launch abort strategies.

NASA will evaluate the systems as they progress, including using state-of-the-art blast modeling that can tell engineers how a rocket malfunction will progress and whether a spacecraft’s abort system will withstand the effects.

Since engineers are putting in hundreds of hours developing and testing these escape systems, could that time be better used improving the design of the rockets and spacecraft themselves so an escape system isn’t needed?

“No,” Gerace said. The reason is that rocket designers can achieve a 95 percent success rate to start with, but each percentage point above that is extremely expensive and still leaves a chance for failure at some point, even if it’s one failure in 35 or 40 launches.

So, building something into the rocket that allows the crew to survive that one failure is cheaper than designing a foolproof rocket, even if it comes dozens of launches into the program.

“By having an abort system that’s highly effective, we’re able to increase the safety of the system, the overall system, by an order of magnitude,” Gerace said.

Steven Siceloff, KSC

The CST-100 development team and NASA engineers recently accomplished a hardware review and software testing for a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit. Separate, in-depth evaluations of the launch vehicle adapter that will connect Boeing’s CST-100 to the top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket and the detection system that would signal an abort during an emergency were performed. The CST-100, short for Crew Space Transportation, is one of several spacecraft under development by aerospace industry partners working with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to establish crew transportation to low-Earth orbit from U.S. soil. You can read more details about the work here.

We are unveiling a new blog today to keep everyone up-to-date on the progress of development of America’s next generation of spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts into low-Earth orbit! You can come to this site for the latest videos, updates and photos from NASA and our industry partners who are working together in a new way to provide safe, reliable and cost-effective transportation into space. 2014 is big year for this effort and we plan to bring you all the excitement of flight and launch abort system tests while still providing the important details along the way. We’ll also share the stories of some of the people involved in this unique effort. So subscribe to our blog or check back often to see how CCP is progressing.