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New Craft Will Be America’s First Space Lifeboat in 40 Years
May 1, 2014

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

The next generation of American spacecraft designed to carry people into low-Earth orbit will be required to function as a lifeboat for the International Space Station for up to seven months. This service has not been provided by an American spacecraft since an Apollo command module remained docked to Skylab for about three months from 1973 to ’74.

Like a lifeboat on a cruise ship, the spacecraft is not expected to be called into service to quickly evacuate people but it has to be ready for that job just in case.

Right now, the lifeboat function on the space station is served by requiring a pair of Russian Soyuz spacecraft to be docked at all times. Each Soyuz holds three people. So with two docked, there can be six people working on the station at any one time. The crew drops to three when one Soyuz leaves and before another arrives during a procedure called an indirect handover.

There are fundamentally two capabilities a spacecraft must perform to be called a lifeboat, said NASA engineers who are working with companies developing spacecraft in the agency’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

First, the spacecraft needs to provide a shelter for astronauts in case of a problem on the station. Second, the ship has to be able to quickly get all its systems operating and detach from the station for a potential return to Earth.

“You’ve got to make sure it provides the same capability on day 210 as it does on day 1,” said Justin Kerr, manager of CCP’s Spacecraft Office.

Two things make it tough for spacecraft designers when it comes to the lifeboat feature: power and protection from things outside the spacecraft like micrometeoroids. The vast amount of electricity generated by the space station’s acre of solar arrays is reserved for the station’s systems and science experiments.

The amount of power dedicated for a docked crew spacecraft is similar to the amount of electricity a refrigerator uses.

“There’s very little power available for these spacecraft so what we’re really driving the partners to do is develop this quiescent mode that draws very little power,” Kerr said.

Ideally, designers want to have the spacecraft powered off when it is attached to the station. That might not be possible, though, because air doesn’t automatically circulate in microgravity the way it does on Earth. So a spacecraft, even with its hatch open inside of the station, can develop dead spots, or sections of the cabin without air for breathing, unless there is something to move the air around.

“You don’t want someone to go into the spacecraft and immediately pass out because there’s no breathable air in that one area,” said Scott Thurston, deputy manager of CCP’s Spacecraft Office.

Designers also have the unique challenge to build a spacecraft strong enough to withstand impacts from micrometeoroids, but cannot carry a lot of armor because it would be too heavy to launch. Although numerous impacts are not expected, designers are still expected to show their craft can survive an occasional hit.

“It’s something you have to design for, the magic bb scenario,” Thurston said.

The situations when the craft will be needed are not only hypothetical. There have been occasions on the International Space Station when the crew members took refuge in the Soyuz because space debris was passing near the station.

CCP gave aerospace companies a list of requirements their spacecraft need to meet during NASA’s certification process for use as in-orbit lifeboats, Thurston said.

Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX are working in partnership with NASA on spacecraft designs that meet these criteria under their Commercial Crew Integrated Capability agreements.

Thurston said each company is coming up with its own novel solutions for the best way to meet the needs of a spacecraft that docks with the station and then stays in orbit for seven months.

“There’s no rock left unturned,” Thurston said. “Some have started out with very extravagant environmental control and life support systems and as they’re doing their studies, they’re slowly figuring out exactly what they need and what they don’t need.”

With a new American spacecraft also offering another four to seven seats, the station can host more astronauts than its current complement of six. That means more science on the station since more people would be available for research duties.

“You never kept more on station than you could get off the station and back home,” Thurston said. “It’s why we staff that station the way we do. Now, you expand the crew capacity and then the crew and that really expands the amount of science you can do.”


Commercial Crew: Part of NASA’s Stepping Stone Approach to Human Exploration

Posted on May 1, 2014 by .

By Kathy Lueders

This is an exciting time to become a program manager in NASA’s human spaceflight program. We have already introduced a new way to develop spacecraft for low-Earth orbit with the cargo program.  This is our stone in the overall agency’s stepping stone approach to unprecedented exploration. First, regular trips to the International Space Station aboard privately owned, American-made spacecraft so we can get the most out of the orbiting laboratory and its one-of-a-kind research capabilities, then human excavation of an asteroid in space followed by the boldest mission yet: sending humans to Mars.  The Commercial Crew Program is committed to meeting our part of this critical strategy.

The Commercial Crew Program was created three years ago with two purposes. The first is to invest in a national capability for flying crews to low-Earth orbit.  During the past three years, using the investment NASA has provided, the partners have risen to the challenge and have made tremendous progress toward developing safe, reliable and cost-effective space transportation systems for low-Earth orbit. Later this year, our partners will conduct some of the most dynamic and challenging systems testing yet.

The second purpose, to actually certify and fly missions to the ISS, will be executed with the award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities contracts in August. These contracts will culminate in missions that will fly NASA crew to the ISS.

I am honored and proud of my extremely capable team on both the NASA and industry side. The next three years will go by quickly as our partners test their systems, perform flight demonstrations, finalize certification and conduct flights in 2017. It may feel like 2017 is a long time away, but for the challenge in front of us – developing a privately owned spaceflight system – it is not. In addition, through our partnerships with industry, we are working to provide unique capabilities NASA has not had in 30 years. It will be the first time that a U.S. capability would provide not only transportation to and from, but also the “lifeboat” capability that ensures the crew always has a safe way home.

We are one step in the agency’s strategy. We look forward to placing that stepping stone out there for future generations to travel on.

More information on the lifeboat capability
More on the Commercial Crew Program

NASA’s Next Prototype Spacesuit has a Brand New Look, and it’s All Thanks to You.
April 30, 2014
The NASA Z-2 Suit

With 233,431 votes, the “Technology” option has won NASA’s Z-2 Spacesuit design challenge with just over 63% of the total vote. This design now will be incorporated into the final version of the suit, which is expected to be ready for testing by November 2014.

NASA’s Z-2 suit is the newest prototype in its next-generation spacesuit platform, the Z-series. With the agency laser focused on a path to Mars, work to develop the technologies astronauts one day will use to live and work on Mars has already begun. Each iteration of the Z-series will advance new technologies that one day will be used in a suit worn by the first humans to step foot on the Red Planet.

There are many key advances to be found in the Z-2 suit when compared to the previous Z-1. The most significant is that the Z-1 had a soft upper torso and the Z-2 has a hard composite upper torso. This composite hard upper torso provides the much-needed long-term durability that a planetary Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suit will require. The shoulder and hip joints differ significantly based on extensive evaluations performed during the last two years with the Z-1 to look at different ways of optimizing mobility of these complex joints. Lastly, the boots are much closer in nature to those that would be found on a suit ready for space, and the materials used on the Z-2 are compatible with a full-vacuum environment.

Besides the typical fit checks and mobility evaluations, NASA currently is planning a very comprehensive test campaign for the Z-2 suit. Engineers will conduct multiple vacuum chamber tests, including one series at full vacuum, mimicking the lack of atmosphere found in space. The suit will be tested at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, the huge indoor pool used to train astronauts to spacewalk. Further testing at a site at Johnson that imitates the rocky Martian surface  will help evaluate the suit’s mobility, comfort and performance. Ultimately, all of these tests will guide engineers in designing the Z-3.

With the Z-2, NASA will employ cover layer design elements, like electroluminescent wiring, never used before in a spacesuit. The designs that were available for voting were produced in collaboration with ILC Dover, the primary suit vendor, and Philadelphia University. The intent of the designs was to highlight certain mobility features for testing. To take it a step further, NASA offered the public the opportunity to decide which of three candidates will be built.

Because the Z-series is still in the prototype, or non-flight, phase, the design won’t be making a trip to space. The cover layer of a non-flight suit still performs an important function in ground-based testing. The cover protects the lower layers and technical details from abrasion and snags during testing. It also serves to provide the suit with an aesthetic appeal. The cover layer on flight suits used for spacewalks performs many other important functions like protecting the spacewalker from micrometeorite strikes, the extreme temperatures in space and the harmful effects of radiation. These requirements drive selection of specific high-performance materials and design details that aren’t necessary at this stage in a prototype suit.

NASA’s Z-2 Spacesuit is a project under the Advanced Exploration Systems Division which pioneers the development and demonstration of new technologies for future human missions beyond Earth orbit as part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

Engineers and scientists around the country are working hard to develop the technologies astronauts will use one day to live and work on Mars and safely return home from the next giant leap for humanity. Follow our progress at http://www.nasa.gov/exploration andhttp://www.nasa.gov/mars.