Commercial crew flight assignments could come this summer

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COLORADO SPRINGS — One of the NASA astronauts training to fly on test flights of commercial crew vehicles said he expects the agency to make flight assignments for those missions as soon as this summer.

In a discussion with reporters here April 6 outside a simulator of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle, Robert Behnken said those upcoming crew assignments will allow astronauts who have been training on both the Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon v2 to specialize on one vehicle.

“I think it’ll be about a year or so from flight,” he said when asked when he expected crew assignments to be made. “If the schedules hold, I think that it’s possible this summer we would see people identified for the flights.”

Both companies are currently planning to perform test flights by the middle of 2018. SpaceX’s schedule calls for a crewed flight test to the International Space Station in May 2018, six months after an uncrewed test flight of the Dragon v2. Boeing expects to do a crewed test flight to the ISS in August 2018, two months after an uncrewed Starliner flight.

A key caveat, though, is whether that schedule of test flights holds. Both companies announced late last year delays in their test flight schedules, pushing crewed test flights into the middle of 2018. That has, in turn, delayed the formal NASA certification of those vehicles, required before they can begin regular flights to the ISS known as post-certification missions (PCMs), until late 2018.

At a March 28 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee in Washington, Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, acknowledged the delays and suggested it may be difficult for either vehicle to be certified by the end of 2018.

“I think a lot of things have to go our way,” she said in response to a question from a committee member about whether the current schedules are feasible. “I think they’re pretty tough right now, but I would say not impossible.”

“I think the providers have a plan to get there, for at least their crewed demos next year,” she added. “I think it’s a little bit tougher to say for the PCMs.”

Behnken is part of a “cadre” of four veteran astronauts announced by NASA in July 2015 to train on both vehicles in preparation for test flights that are key milestones in each company’s commercial crew development contracts. In addition to Behnken, a former chief of the NASA Astronaut Office, the agency selected Eric Boe, Douglas Hurley and Sunita Williams.

At least three of the four will be assigned to fly on those test flights. SpaceX plans to use two NASA astronauts on its crewed Dragon v2 flight, while Boeing will pair one NASA astronaut with a Boeing commercial test pilot yet to be identified. Industry insiders have widely speculated that Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut who is now director of Starliner crew and mission operations at Boeing, will be that test pilot.

The four astronauts in the commercial crew cadre have been training on both vehicles since the announcement, both learning how each spacecraft operates and providing feedback to the companies. They have been involved on all aspects of both vehicles, without specializing on any specific vehicle or subsystem.

That lack of specialization will carry over onto operational missions. Unlike the shuttle program, where astronauts were trained as either pilots or mission specialists, Behnken said there were no plans to create a class of pilot astronauts for Dragon or Starliner spacecraft.

“I think it’s become obsolete with the retirement of the space shuttle to some extent,” he said, citing the experience from the ISS. “It’s really made it so that you need a crewmember who can do everything, and for these capsules, both Boeing’s vehicle and SpaceX’s vehicle, the intent is to get to a place where anybody in our astronaut corps could operate the vehicles.”

Behnken said the four members of the cadre have been working together, comparing notes before making recommendations to the companies on changes they should make to their vehicles. The intent, he said, is to avoid when happened with the Gemini spacecraft design in the 1960s, when astronaut Gus Grissom played such a major role in its development that the spacecraft was nicknamed the “Gusmobile” by other astronauts.

“We wanted to be a little bit careful to build a spacecraft that was more representative of what the [astronaut] office would need versus what I need,” he said. “I didn’t want my name to be the one that was cursed for the rest of the life of CST-100 because I had agreed to something.”