Photo credit: NASA

Serious questions were raised by the independent panel that assesses the safety of NASA activities, concerning NASA’s plan to test flight software for NASA’s missions to the Moon.

Former NASA Flight Director Paul Hill, a member of the Aerospace safety Advisory board, highlighted the panels concern during a Thursday meeting, after talking to the managers for NASA’s first three Artemis missions, which comprises of a test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for the Artemis I missions, then human flights on the Artemis II and III missions.

Paul Hill explained that “the safety panel was apprehensive about the lack of “end-to-end” testing of the software and hardware used during these missions, from launch through landing. Such comprehensive testing ensures that the flight software is compatible across different vehicles and in a number of different environments, including the turbulence of launch and maneuvers in space”

“The panel has great concern about the end-to-end integrated test capability plans, especially for flight software,” Hill explained. “There is no end-to-end integrated avionics and software test capability. Instead, multiple and separate labs, emulators, and simulations are being used to test subsets of the software.”

The safety panel also found it hard to comprehend why NASA had not learned its lessons from the recent test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft that failed, Hill said.

Before a test flight of the Starliner crew capsule in December 2019, no integrated end-to-end test was performed on the mission that was supposed to dock with the International Space Station. Boeing broke the test into rubbles, instead of undergoing a software test that goes through the 48-hour period from launch through docking to the station. The spacecraft was almost lost twice due to this. The spacecraft was not able to reach the orbiting laboratory.

Pail Hill cited a report by the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC), that was published on September 8.

“It is not evident to the panelists their current plan and processes take advantage of their lessons learned,” Paul Hill said. “The NESC report makes the excellent point that as much as possible flight systems should be developed for success with a goal to test like you fly in the same way that NASA’s operations teams train the way you fly, and fly the way you train.”

Kathryn Hambleton ,a NASA spokesman, in response to the concerns, said the agency would be conducting end-to-end testing. She explained that the testing would be done across multiple facilities.

“NASA is conducting integrated end-to-end testing for the software, hardware, avionics, and integrated systems needed to fly Artemis missions,” Kathryn Hambleton axplained. “Using the agency’s sophisticated software development laboratories, teams from SLS, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems use actual flight hardware and software, as well as emulators—versions of the software that each team employs to test their code and how it works with the whole integrated system—to support both system-level interface testing and integrated mission testing to ensure the software and avionics systems work together.”

Kathryn Hambleton explained, after the Starliner incident , that the NASA chief engineer inaugurated a team to test all Artemis I flights and ground software activities. The team started the test for all Artemis missions, which may begin flying in flying in late 2021 and 2022

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