Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Miscellaneous Space News Update

A few small items, none of which is long enough to warrant a full column

Item 1:  Boeing still has not reached a conclusion about what caused the error with "unexpected valve positions" that led to the scrubbing of the Starliner test flight last week. There was an update to Boeing's Starliner Updates site yesterday some time after I last checked it, explaining their progress.  Some quotes from the article:

This weekend, Boeing restored functionality on more of the 13 CST-100 Starliner propulsion system valves that did not open as designed during prelaunch system checks last week.

Boeing has completed physical inspections and chemical sampling on the exterior of a number of the affected valves, which indicated no signs of damage or external corrosion. Test teams are now applying mechanical, electrical and thermal techniques to prompt the valves open. Seven of the 13 valves are now operating as designed, with inspection and remediation of the remaining affected valves to be performed in the days ahead.  [Bold added: SiG]

Frankly, I find that a little alarming.   Seven of 13 are now operating as designed, and all they can report is no signs of damage or external corrosion?  If the valves operate as they're supposed to when connected to hardware that can apply the necessary control signals and voltages, then the problem is in their software.  Which came damned close to dooming their first Starliner.  

Then they go on to state they still haven't determined the root cause of the problem.  Maybe I'm just a fussy old engineer, but I'd prefer to have all of those valves working and it won't fly until the root cause analysis is completed and the cause can be demonstrated.  (Full disclosure: I often thought those meetings filling out the "five whys" forms were an unnecessary pain in the ass, but they're good organizational tools.  Sometimes we fix a problem that's a result of the root cause and not the deeper underlying problem.  Fixing the wrong problem happens regularly.)

Needless to say, they haven't declared victory or scheduled a launch, yet.  I'm just getting the feeling this particular problem should have been found before.  

Item 2:  The Blue Origin and Dynetics' protest against NASA for selecting SpaceX to provide the Human Landing System (HLS) rather than them has been ruled against by the General Accounting Office (GAO).   The GAO ruled that although NASA had demonstrated a desire to proceed with more than one HLS provider, that they could pick only the best one of the three competitors, however they decided which was best.  

The drawback is that the GAO deliberated on this for 95 of the 100 days it was allowed to decide, and during that time no NASA funds could be delivered to SpaceX and the company was not allowed to work on the HLS.  Since the HLS is derived from Starship, it might be a bit tricky at times to decide if they're working on their Starship or the HLS.  I'm sure that some or even most of the hardware on the Mars and moon versions is identical but that dedicated moon hardware couldn't be worked on.

Item 3:  NASA has had a program going to develop new Extravehicular Activity (EVA) suits for use on the moon in the Artemis program.  Brace yourself for this shocking news: the program is late and over budget. 

NASA's Inspector General says delays in spacesuit development are another factor making a 2024 astronaut Moon landing impossible.

With $420M spent and another $625M expected, suits won't be "ready for flight until April 2025 at the earliest."

Report Link (pdf)

(Source quote)  

The program has been running since 2007 and the suits are now expected in 2025?  Eighteen years and over a billion dollars to develop a suit?  

This report (linked above) was issued by Office of the Inspector General (OIG) today, just a couple of days after the GAO issued their ruling in previous story.  Elon Musk heard about that and said, "SpaceX could do it if need be."  Granted the suits have quite different requirements, but SpaceX developed the suits for the Crew Dragon manned capsules, after all.  It's not that far out of their expertise.  

As it turns out, SpaceX is already one of around two dozen “interested parties” [PDF] active in NASA’s new xEVAS (Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services) program – an effort to commandeer the spectacular success of commercial cargo and crew programs to replace half-century-old spacesuits. xEVAS has currently released a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) and is awaiting responses to that draft until mid-August before releasing the true RFP in mid-September.

Interested parties will then have until mid-October to submit proposals to design and build modern EVA (extravehicular activity) spacesuits capable of supporting astronauts on the lunar surface and on spacewalks in Earth orbit. NASA says it will then take a full five (or seven) months to review those proposals, downselect, and reward at least one or two contracts – hopefully resulting in two redundant EVA systems much like the 2+ redundant providers NASA chose to support its Commercial Crew (CCP) and Cargo Resupply Services (CRS) programs.

Yes, it sounds like a repeat of how the HLS contract was awarded, so we'll have to see what happens.  I think that SpaceX, being driven by the vision of settlements on Mars, is already working on suits for Mars or at least giving it some thought.  Sure the moon is a different environment; Mars doesn't have much of an atmosphere, but it has some, and the sun isn't as intense on Mars.  This isn't a field I've read much of anything on, but it seems like one designed for the moon would work on Mars, but maybe not the other way around.  Maybe they've already started?  Based on this drawing.

SpaceX illustration.  There are some pretty stark differences between this depiction of the HLS lander and the first one from May of '20.  Although it seems like a crop from the one they released in May of this year.


  1. Boeing is excellent at doing things that they did 20 years ago, and excellent at making things that can't fly properly.

    If Boeing made cars, they would just explode every few weeks or so.

  2. Off topic

    Have you seen this?

    "As far as Nauka's role in this process of safety-culture repair, it turns out that quite by bizarre coincidence, a similar pattern was played out by the very first Russian launch that inaugurated the ISS program, the 'Zarya' module [called the 'FGB'] in late 1997. Nauka turns out to be the repeatedly rebuilt and upgraded backup module for that very launch, and the parallels are remarkable."

    1. I had not seen that article. Both fascinating and more than a little bit scary. I never got the impression from the initial reports that the ISS did 1-1/2 complete rotations around it's long axis. Saying that they fixed the problem within an hour so it wasn't a problem is reminding me of launching on the coldest morning in years in '86 (Challenger) or saying chunks of foam have fallen off the external tank without problems before (Columbia).

      Coming from an old hand like Oberg gives it more credibility.

  3. The NASA suit that is late and over budget has something like 29 separate suppliers.

    Musk, when commenting on that, said it's too many and that SpaceX can do it cheaper and better.

    Right now it looks like anything LegacySpace has been tainted by both Congress and, well, LegacySpace and EVERYTHING should be re-evaluated.

    Be funny if SpaceX brought out a fully useable EVA (for spacewalks) and surface suit within a week or so. And the way they operate, it would not surprise me at all.

  4. Hopefully, Boeing will not be making suits.

  5. Having only visited ILC Dover once a long time ago, and not staying in a Holiday Inn Express since then...
    IIRC, Mars and the Moon present two different operating environments for space suits. Static charges, radiation, dust, abrasion, thermal differences, atmospheric gasses, wind, gravity/mass/weight, etc. Static charge and dust clinging to everything was a problem for Apollo lunar suits.
    All stuff that can be overcome with enough time and testing, and SpaceX has gotten very good at design/build/test/deploy/analyze/rinse/repeat.
    Thanks for keeping a good eye on Musk and his minions' efforts for us!
    Wandering Neurons