On the left, NASA astronaut Suni Williams, fully suited in SpaceX’s spacesuit, interfaces with the display inside a mock-up of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in Hawthorne, California, during a testing exercise on April 3, 2018. On the right, NASA astronauts Bob Behnken, Eric Boe and Doug Hurley conduct a fully-suited exercise in Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner mockup trainer during early May at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston. Credits: Left photo: SpaceX, Right photo: Boeing
A joint commercial provider and NASA team will help ensure astronauts will be able to safely travel to and from the International Space Station aboard Boeing and SpaceX spacecraft.
The Joint Test Team for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program pulls expertise from across the key human spaceflight areas to design, test, assess, and plan missions aboard the Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft.
NASA works closely with the teams at Boeing and SpaceX to provide technical expertise, problem-solving, and independent assessment to key test activities that verify critical human interfaces and crew training.
“If you look at an organizational chart, you won’t see the joint test team on there, because its members represent a diverse group of individuals across multiple departments,” said Mike Good, program manager assistant for Crew Operations and Testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
NASA Commercial Crew Program astronauts Eric Boe. Left, and Bob Behnken joined flight director Richard Jones and his NASA/Boeing flight control team in the first Mission Control Center, Houston, on-console simulation of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner launch, climb to orbit and post-orbital insertion timeline. Credits: NASA
When human spaceflight returns to the U.S., astronauts and members of the joint team will have logged hundreds of hours of simulations and tests on both commercial crew spacecraft.
“The simulators are a great tool to train and test the flight hardware before we fly,” said Good, a veteran astronaut who flew on space shuttle missions STS-125 and STS-132.
“We work with this team to make sure we get all the testing done with the providers,” said NASA astronaut Suni Williams.
“One of the key parts of the Commercial Crew Program is the joint test team. So whenever the providers want to do a test requiring human interaction with their systems, the team gets together to understand the test parameters and go through the safety review process so no one gets hurt during the testing,” said Williams.
They also ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s safety and performance requirements.
“Our goal is to be ‘value added.’ We try to provide useful feedback,” said Good. “What we can bring from our side is our experience with test flying and with human spaceflight.”
The joint team provides input ranging from cockpit layout and controls to flight crew suits and mission planning.
“We’re getting great insight on the systems, the training, the procedures, the hardware and the software,” said Good.
The team has recently worked with Boeing on several tests including manual piloting, human factors, workloads and usability.
The team also has worked closely with SpaceX on spacecraft development and design, spacesuit fit and comfort, displays and training material.
“Really the whole mission, from pre-launch through docking and undocking, entry, landing and post-landing, all of those need to be verified in the simulator. So we’ll have our astronauts going through each flight phase making sure all the tasks they have to do meet our workload, usability and error-rate requirements,” said Good. “We’re also contributing by helping the provider complete their verification testing so that they can close requirements and we can go fly safely.”
Before Boeing and SpaceX will be able to begin flying regular missions to the space station, they must make sure all of the systems onboard the capsule meet NASA’s safety requirements. These criteria are designed to ensure a safe journey for the crew and the capsule.
“Spaceflight and test flight experience are very important to our team. It gives us valuable insight back to the program,” said Good.
Even during test flights without a crew, astronauts on board the International Space Station will interact with the capsule during and after docking. For this interface to work as planned, the commercial crew astronauts play a large role in making sure the systems in both capsules are user-friendly on Earth and in low-Earth orbit.
This team’s work will come to fruition when Boeing and SpaceX complete their uncrewed test flights later this year. The test flights will validate the capsules’ capabilities and will help lead to flights with crew on board.