Zoom in / Teams at NASA’s Michode assembly facility move the base stage toward a barge in January that will transport it to a test stand in Mississippi.

NASA

An independent panel to assess the safety of NASA’s activities has raised serious questions about the space agency’s plan to test flight programs for its lunar missions.

During a Thursday meeting of the Space Safety Advisory Committee, one of its members, former NASA Aviation Director Paul Hill, explained the committee’s concerns after speaking with the directors of NASA’s first three Artemis missions. This includes a test flight of the Space Launch System missile and the Orion spacecraft of Artemis 1, and then human flights on the Artemis II and III missions.

Hill said the safety committee was concerned about the lack of “comprehensive” testing of the software and hardware used during these missions, from launch to landing. This comprehensive testing ensures that the flight program is compatible across different vehicles and in a number of different environments, including launch turbulence and maneuvering in space.

“The committee has great concern about the overall integrated test capability plans, especially for the flight programs,” Hill said. “There is no integrated avionics and software testing capability. Instead, multiple separate laboratories, simulators and simulations are used to test subsets of the software.”

The safety committee was also struggling to understand why, apparently, NASA had not learned its lessons from Failed last test flight Hill said about the Boeing Starliner spacecraft. (Boeing is also the prime contractor for the base stage of the Space Launch System missile.)

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Prior to a test flight of the Starliner crew capsule in December 2019, Boeing did not fully comprehensively test the mission that was supposed to dock with the International Space Station. Instead of running a software test that included a roughly 48-hour period from launch to docking at the station, Boeing has broken down the test into parts. As a result, the spacecraft nearly lost on two occasions and did not complete its primary goal of reaching the orbiting laboratory.

Lessons learned

Hill pointed to a special report by NASA’s Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), published on September 8, that raised similar concerns about trying to run software tests across many centers and laboratories.

“It is not clear to the committee members that their current plan and operations are building on lessons learned,” Hill said. “The NESC report makes the excellent point that as many flying systems as possible must be developed to achieve success with the goal of testing your ideals in the same way that NASA operations teams train the way you fly, and they fly the way you do.”

In response to these concerns, a NASA spokeswoman said that the agency will, in fact, be conducting extensive testing – although admitting that they will be conducted across multiple facilities.

“NASA is conducting comprehensive integrated testing of the software, hardware, avionics, and integrated systems needed for the Artemis flight,” said Kathryn Hambleton. “Using the agency’s advanced software development labs, teams from SLS, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems use actual flight hardware and software, as well as simulation software – versions of the software that each team uses to test their own code and how it works with the whole integrated system – to support both interface testing System-wide and integrated testing tasks to ensure software and avionics systems work together.

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After the Starliner accident, she said, NASA’s chief engineer set up an independent review team to evaluate all activities of the Artemis I flight and critical ground program. These recommendations have been incorporated into preparation for Artemis’ upcoming missions, which may begin in late 2021 or 2022.