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By Bill D’Zio March 25, 2020

SpaceX Dragon
SpaceX Crew Dragon on approach Credit NASA

Part 2 of the Life in Space with COVID19 we will delve into Crew demo-2 where NASA and SpaceX are planning a launch within two months. There are a lot of pre-launch milestones and activities to cover to ensure a safe flight for the Astronauts. If anything goes wrong, there are lives at stake. Now NASA and SpaceX have to contend with another potential setback, COVID19 pandemic. (Click here for part I)

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft for Demo-2 arrived at the launch site on Feb. 13, 2020. Photo credit: SpaceX

In Part I of why COVID19 pandemic is bad timing for the Space industry, we covered that issues happen because the relationship between complexity, risk, schedule and cost for space missions was not balanced.

A plot of mission complexity against schedule distribution showed that all of the partial or complete failures occur in the bottom third of the distribution indicating a strong correlation. (a partial failure means that the mission was able to continue or complete some of the original objectives)

Establishment of a ‘‘no-fly zone’’ can be done defining criteria where based on the complexity of the project the sufficient time or money to develop a system was not allocated. In short, when NASA did not allocate sufficient time and or funding in order to offset the increased complexity there was a much higher likelihood of partial or complete mission failure.

In review of the failures for these past mission failures, under budget or schedule constraints, projects tended to bypass best practices such as testing. The bypassing of tests and best practices translates into higher risk since the testing could have detected and allowed NASA to correct the issue before it impacted the mission.Journey to Mars impact by COVID19

NASA and contractors are already well behind on their efforts for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Design challenges, tornados and now COVID19.

NASA has stated that work on the agency’s Artemis program continues but with limited production of hardware and software for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. SLS and Orion manufacturing and testing activities at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility and Stennis Space Center are temporarily on hold as a result of the COVID19 pandemic. The first crewless Artemis mission Orion spacecraft will be shipped from the the Glenn Research Center to its Kennedy Space Center. Recently NASA completed a series of tests required to validate the spacecraft in advance of the first mission and integration on top of SLS for the Artemis I lunar mission. The Artemis II Orion spacecraft at KSC is also still progressing.

NASA plans to leverage capabilities across the agency virtually. NASA shared that it already functions in a virtual team environment to conduct engineering analysis and other work and expects minimal impact from the requirement for mandatory telework. Since much of the lunar Gateway is still in the design phase, development work on the Gateway program can be done remotely. On-site activity beyond has been temporarily suspended until further notice.

Work also is continuing on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA is more than three years behind schedule with both SpaceX and Boeing. Further delays of the CCP could result in diminished operation of the international space station. The upcoming launch of SpaceX Crew Demo 2 is a critical element to maintaining safe operations on the International Space Station and a sustained U.S. presence on the orbiting laboratory. Additionally, commercial resupply activities and future missions also will go on as scheduled in order to keep the space station crew fully supplied and safe. SpaceX and NASA are targeting no earlier than mid-to-late May for Crew Dragon’s launch with two NASA Astronauts on board.

SpaceX is moving along on its efforts for the upcoming missions despite a public order by the mayor of Los Angeles to close “non-essential businesses” in the city, where SpaceX is headquartered. Since SpaceX is conducting work to support the ISS a strong argument can be made that SpaceX is essential. Caution still needs to be taken to avoid unexpected outcomes.

The NASA_Orion spacecraft and European Service Module are in the vacuum chamber ahead of final environmental testing Credit ESA

Recalling that the failures for many past NASA missions stemmed from projects being under budget or schedule constraints, a shortage of resources that normally would work on the project may cause complications. New resources added to projects if a key individual is sick, or if an individual is sick, can compromise projects.

New resources may tend to miss or not understand best practices. Mistakes can happen if individuals are attempting to utilize software from a home computer rather than their workstation at work. Peer reviews of work that normally would occur face to face may shift to digital medium and be less effective resulting in more time, or needing to rush through some tasks.

In short, COVID19 is forcing people out of their normal routine. Any time that happens, a good look at the assumptions behind the work need to be done to avoid higher risk situations.

About The Author

Bill D'Zio

Bill D’Zio

Co-Founder at

Bill founded after returning to China in 2019 to be supportive of his wife’s career. Moving to China meant leaving the US rocket/launch industry behind, as USA and China don’t see eye to eye on cooperation in space. Bill has an engineering degree and is an experienced leader of international cross-functional teams with experience in evaluating, optimizing and awarding sub-contracts for complex systems. Bill has worked with ASME Components, Instrumentation and Controls (I&C) for use in launch vehicles, satellites, aerospace nuclear, and industrial applications.

Bill provides consulting services for engineering, supply chain, and project management.

An obvious next step in the effort to dramatically lower the cost of access to low Earth orbit is to explore non-rocket options. A wide variety of ideas have been proposed, but it’s difficult to meaningfully compare them and to get a sense of what’s actually on the technology horizon. The best way to quantitatively assess these technologies is by using Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs). TRLs are used by NASA, the United States military, and many other agencies and companies worldwide. Typically there are nine levels, ranging from speculations on basic principles to full flight-tested status.

The system NASA uses can be summed up as follows:

TRL 1 Basic principles observed and reported
TRL 2 Technology concept and/or application formulated
TRL 3 Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof-of concept
TRL 4 Component and/or breadboard validation in laboratory environment
TRL 5 Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment
TRL 6 System/subsystem model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment (ground or space)
TRL 7 System prototype demonstration in a space environment
TRL 8 Actual system completed and “flight qualified” through test and demonstration (ground or space)
TRL 9 Actual system “flight proven” through successful mission operations.

Progress towards achieving a non-rocket space launch will be facilitated by popular understanding of each of these proposed technologies and their readiness level. This can serve to coordinate more work into those methods that are the most promising. I think it is important to distinguish between options with acceleration levels within the range human safety and those that would be useful only for cargo. Below I have listed some non-rocket space launch methods and my assessment of their technology readiness levels.

Spacegun: 6. The US Navy’s HARP Project launched a projectile to 180 km. With some level of rocket-powered assistance in reaching stable orbit, this method may be feasible for shipments of certain forms of freight.

Spaceplane: 6. Though a spaceplane prototype has been flown, this is not equivalent to an orbital flight. A spaceplane will need significantly more delta-v to reach orbit than a suborbital trajectory requires.

Orbital airship: 2. Though many subsystems have been flown, the problem of atmospheric drag on a full scale orbital airship appears to prevent this kind of architecture from reaching space.

Space Elevator: 3. The concept may be possible, albeit with major technological hurdles at the present time. A counterweight, such as an asteroid, needs to be positioned above geostationary orbit. The material of the elevator cable needs to have a very high tensile strength/mass ratio; no satisfactory material currently exists for this application. The problem of orbital collisions with the elevator has also not been resolved.

Electromagnetic catapult: 4. This structure could be built up the slope of a tall mountain to avoid much of the Earth’s atmosphere. Assuming a small amount of rocket power would be used after a vehicle exits the catapult, no insurmountable technological obstacles stand in the way of this method. The sheer scale of the project makes it difficult to develop the technology past level 4.

Are there any ideas we’re missing here?