NASA will not be able to complete development planning for the Constellation programme's Ares launchers for another year because a key study of ground test requirements will not be ready until then. A 2005 assessment of past human spaceflight programmes by consultants Aerospace Corp found the full-scale ground testing of launchers was key to successes in programmes from Mercury to the Space Shuttle.
Now NASA has hired Aerospace to examine the requirements of a ground test campaign for its Ares 1 crew launch vehicle. "The scale of the ground tests will determine how extensive the flight-test programme has to be," says Eduardo Tomei, space launch operations chief engineer for Aerospace's space systems group.
Based on the consultancy's assessment of previous programmes, Tomei says an unexpected failure on an Ares test launch would be "very good for the programme", because an unexpected Apollo programme test launch failure showed that the new emergency detection system was working.
Little Joe II tested launch abort systems
NASA is developing its ideas for a ground- and flight-test programme, which includes development flights starting from 2008 and two launch abort and landing tests in 2010. Recommendations from the 2005 report included the need for a new Little Joe II rocket to act as a sub-scale launch vehicle testbed. Little Joe II was used in the Apollo programme to test the Saturn V's launch abort system.
The report added that if budget or time constraints forced NASA to choose between reliability and qualification tests, it should opt for qualification testing. "The flight-test plan will change as tests progress. We could add subsequent flights," says Charles Cockrell, crew launch vehicle implementation office manager within the US space agency's exploration and flight projects directorate.
NASA, meanwhile, plans to use the International Space Station (ISS) to test subsystems for the Orion crew exploration vehicle. From 2014 Orion will have to operate in space for up to six months, acting as an emergency crew return vehicle while docked to the ISS. Light emitting diodes and lithium-ion batteries are two technologies to be tested in orbit.
Orion will also need to orbit the Moon for a similar length of time once a lunar outpost is established in the 2020s. As a result, the NASA is seeking to use the ISS to test Orion systems in the space environment to prove their reliability.
"We're looking at testing Orion's systems on ISS," says NASA associate administrator for space operations Bill Gerstenmaier. He also says discussions are under way with Russia on agreeing common interfaces for equipment such as life-support systems. Having standard interfaces is one of the lessons learned from the six years of continuous human habitation of the ISS, he says.