With Demo-2, NASA finds itself in foreign yet familiar territory

As the transition from government-owned crew launch rockets to commercial providers arrives, NASA launch integration is in a very different position than it has been with other human spaceflight programs like Apollo and Shuttle.

With all launches, hundreds of thousands of things have to align perfectly for a rocket to lift off.  And many of those things aren’t on the rocket but are nonetheless vital, like crew safety, escorts, security, crew rescue, crew lodging, quarantine, etc.

Making sure all these various elements that have to be present for a launch — especially one with crew — are ready to support a mission is the job of launch integration.

For Apollo and Shuttle, everything about a NASA human mission was owned or operated by NASA, and launch integration was a matter of coordinating between different departments and divisions within the same agency.

But things are now different.  NASA no longer owns the rocket.  They don’t own the spacecraft.  They don’t own the launch pad or the launch equipment.  SpaceX does.  And SpaceX is in charge of their property and the launch countdown and bringing those elements together.

But NASA will still provide all those other things like crew rescue, security, escorts, crew quarters, and quarantine; and the agency has worked tirelessly with SpaceX to make sure everything needed for tomorrow is available and that the two organizations are coordinating together effectively.

Crew Dragon launches on the IFA flight from 39A – photo by Brady Kenniston for NSF/L2

Discussing these differences with NASASpaceflight is Steve Payne, the recently retired Commercial Crew Launch Integration Manager for NASA.

“Unlike back in the day when NASA had control of everything, the commercial provider, in this case SpaceX, owns the rocket.  They own the capsule.  They own the roads in their launch pad and all the assembly and testing of their rocket.  That’s all theirs.  Anything inside the pad perimeter belongs to them.” noted Mr. Payne.

“And that’s quite different from how it used to be in the Shuttle days.  So for launch integration from the NASA side, what we do is have in place of the institutional side of things to make sure we can support their launch.  They’re going to need things from the center.”

“So our job was to make sure that knowledge got passed on to the providers so they understood why we were asking for all of these things and why the contingencies existed.  Those of us who have done this before many times were happy to pass it on, and they were happy to listen.  

“When we first started, there were moments of ‘Why are you asking for this?’  But right now they’re doing everything that we would have done that’s still relevant.”

Part of launch integration includes emergency response; if something went wrong and the crew needed to be rescued at the pad, that’s a NASA launch integration service provided to SpaceX by the Kennedy Space Center.  “So we had to form up, field train, and equip a Pad Rescue Team.  Should [the crew] get in trouble and need someone to go get them, all of that has to be put in place.”

Most of the teams that would assist a crew in an emergency situation were disbanded after Shuttle, and even the equipment was disposed of.

“We started from scratch,” noted Mr. Payne.

A new armored vehicle was procured from surplus from the U.S. military, and all paramedic and medical teams had to be reassembled with new plans put in place for how to perform emergency helicopter evacuation of crew or pad members should they require more complete medical care. 

“Our job is to interface with the provider’s launch team,” said Mr. Payne.  “So if SpaceX has an issue with the rocket, and they declare an emergency, and they tell people to leave, we spring into action to go receive them.”

Launch integration also oversees all water-rescue operations in the event of a pad or in-flight abort — in this case, the forces that would deploy from Patrick Air Force Base just south of the spaceport in Florida, from South Carolina, or from Hawai’i.

All those operations had to be put back into place from Apollo given Crew Dragon’s ability to abort into the Atlantic ocean at any point in its flight, instead of the Shuttle which would have come back to the runway at Kennedy or continued across the Atlantic to land in Europe or northern/western Africa.

Additionally, there are all the preflight technical and human related items that have to align at the Kennedy Space Center, which also falls to launch integration.

Falcon 9 rolling out of the HIF ahead of the Crew Dragon Demo-1 mission in January 2019. Credit: SpaceX

“There’s a pre-launch part where NASA people will be monitoring the launch countdown.  We have a lot of experience in that.  So we need to provide them a facility and data and communications and procedures for who talks to who and how it all work,” noted Mr. Payne. 

“Likewise, when the crew arrives here prior to launch, they’re in quarantine.  And those procedures for quarantine had to be put together along with how you make sure the providers are giving NASA a clean vehicle and a clean capsule and that everything they touch is sanitized.”

It’s a huge operation, but one Mr. Payne is happy to have led in the formative years of the massive change in human launch operations from the U.S.

“It’s one of these things where you have to let go of the bike.  If you’re teaching your kid how to ride a bicycle, at some point you have to let go and let them do it.  And if they do it, you find you don’t have to hold their hand anymore.

“Being in a support role is very different from being in the lead role.  We’re still leading in some ways for the things that are institutional in nature like rescue and medical and those types of things,” noted Mr. Payne.

And that speaks to the role NASA now wants to serve: helping others achieve what they have and being the voice of experience and history.

To that end, there’s a level of trust that’s been established between NASA and SpaceX in large part due to NASA launch integration and Mr. Payne.

“At first, we wanted to make sure they knew what they were doing before we trusted him with a crew.  But we have observed their launches for a long time.  They’ve had many, many successful launches.  We have seen them grow as a launch team.  

“We’re okay now,” Mr. Payne proclaimed with a large, infectious smile.

The infectious smile is one that will hopefully carry toward the future, for while NASA astronauts are the only ones riding commercial rockets right now, that will soon change with two private citizen flights, one to the International Space Station and the other to Low Earth Orbit, already announced by SpaceX — missions that will launch on Crew Dragon from 39A.

“It’s an excellent question because it’s relevant.  We were having this discussion the other day.  When they start launching regular non-NASA astronauts, what services are they going to have, what are they going to need, how do we make sure it’s equally safe or pretty darn close?

“And those discussions are ongoing right now,” said Mr. Payne.  “What are we going to require from the center for a civilian launch?  Things like health stabilization have to be identical because you’re not going up until you’ve been through the whole quarantine process because you’re not taking bugs up to the Station.  

“But things like rescue operations are provided by the center.  If SpaceX wants them, they can purchase them.”

Falcon 9 with the IFA Crew Dragon – photo by Nathan Barker for NSF

In this way, Mr. Payne sees a hopeful future where the Kennedy Space Center becomes a thriving spaceport where, just like an airport provides rescue and emergency services for purchase and airlines focus on flying, so to does Kennedy.

But before that future can arrive, one small step is needed first.  Weather and technology permitting, Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 will lift off on their maiden crew voyage tomorrow, 27 May at 16:33:31 EDT (10:33:31 UTC).

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