Not all spacecraft are created equal, as the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch proved, but NASA astronauts definitely have an opinion on what they want to take off in.
Astronauts on the Joint Test Team for the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program have joined forces with the Boeing and SpaceX teams to influence every facet of spacecraft development so future crews can be safe beyond the atmosphere. This means getting involved in the design and development of private spaceships and training operations with Boeing and SpaceX (who signed contracts worth $4.6 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively), who NASA selected to fly their crews to and from the ISS in 2014.
Uncrewed test flights on the SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsule should be touching down later this year. Crewed flights will be shooting into space as soon as next year, which is why training procedures and human interfaces aboard spaceships need to be evaluated and test activities independently assessed.
“We try to provide useful feedback,” said NASA astronaut Mike Good. “What we can bring from our side is our experience with test flying and with human spaceflight.”
That means bringing off-Earth experience to input on everything from cockpit layout and controls to mission planning and spacesuits. By collaborating with Boeing, the team has tested manual piloting, workloads, usability and human factors, while SpaceX tests have focused on displays and training material along with development and design of both the spacecraft and suits for the crew.
The Joint Test Team also makes sure that NASA safety and performance standards are being met by the companies—over and over again. Every system on board a spacecraft must live up to these requirements so both the crew and the craft itself will not be taking any unnecessary risks in space.
“One of the key parts of the Commercial Crew Program is the Joint Test Team,” NASA astronaut Suni Williams said. “So whenever the providers want to do a test requiring human interaction with their systems, the team gets together to understand the test parameters and go through the safety review process so no one gets hurt during the testing.”
When the U.S. finally sends these spacecraft beyond the atmosphere, there will have been hundreds of hours of simulations and tests run by Joint Test Team members and astronauts on both. Simulators are crucial to trying out flight hardware before anything launches.
Astronauts on board the ISS will interact with spacecraft on uncrewed test flights before and after the capsule docks. Their expertise will be vital in ensuring the Boeing and SpaceX systems operate efficiently on Earth and in low Earth orbit. You can be pretty sure anything sent into space isn’t going to crash and burn if it’s NASA-approved.
“Spaceflight and test flight experience are very important to our team,” said Good. “It gives us valuable insight back to the program.”