Safe Launch, Safe Landing

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NASA is planning new missions to send humans deep into space.
Booz Allen Hamilton engineers are helping them stay nimble, productive and safe.

  • The International Space Station’s (ISS) length and width is about the size of a football field.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • An astronaut routes hundreds of feet of cable as part of a reconfiguration of the ISS to enable docking by US commercial crew vehicles currently under development.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • This view of the Earth is from one of the ISS’s modules, Cupola—a small, dome-shaped module that has six windows around the sides and one on top. The multi-directional view allows the crew to monitor spacewalks and docking operations, as well as provide spectacular views.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • During a spacewalk, an astronaut works on installing a new port for commercial spacecraft to dock to the ISS in the near future.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

It’s been 46 years since astronaut Neil Armstrong took that first giant step for mankind. But today deep space exploration is back in business, and a new generation of engineers and systems integrators is leading the charge. They’re captivated by the mysteries space holds, challenged by the complexities of getting there, and inspired to make a lasting contribution to life in space—and here on Earth.

In Earth’s near orbit, commercial spacecraft routinely shuttle crew and cargo to and from the International Space Station (ISS)―hauling payloads from 25 countries like freight trucks at a distribution hub. The ISS tests key technologies and integrated systems necessary to support NASA’s human mission in space. Onboard research also studies how zero gravity conditions impact our minds and bodies over time, and develops new medical technologies and protocols that keep astronauts and humankind healthy and safe.

As this research advances, NASA is focused on its next big challenge: building and testing Orion, the next-generation vehicle that will explore deep space. Aerojet Rocketdyne, The Boeing Company, Lockheed Martin Space Systems and other commercial partners are building the launch system and crew module that can rocket space travelers to asteroids, the Moon and eventually Mars—and protect them from harsh and dangerous conditions along the way. 

This complex mission calls for specialized engineering and integration skills. There are work streams to coordinate, commercial partners to synchronize and multi-dimensional problems to solve. Since the inception of the original space station Freedom in 1983, NASA and its commercial partners have turned to Booz Allen Hamilton for mission critical support across the program—from big-picture strategic thinking to monitoring of system performance. 

“Booz Allen helped figure out how to build the ISS, and in the process we solved a lot of problems,” says Booz Allen Chief Engineer Bob Gates. “Then, we took these processes and introduced them to Orion. The lessons we learned about large-scale integration help keep Orion alive by solving technical issues as they arise.”

Two Agonizing Minutes

Adrenaline Rush

It’s December 5, 2014, and Booz Allen Senior Lead Engineer Nujoud Merancy is riveted to her console in the Kennedy Space Center’s Engineering Support Room. Four hours earlier, she watched Orion launch atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket on its maiden voyage. And now, after climbing to an altitude of 3,600 miles, the unmanned capsule is hurtling toward Earth.

Nujoud’s heart is pounding. As the Orion Mission Planning and Analysis Lead, she and the Orion team put together the automated sequencing timeline that initiates all vehicle activities from terminal countdown through post-landing. This includes triggering the three-stage Capsule Parachute Assembly System during the final phase of descent—as the vehicle slows from 20,000 mph at atmospheric entry to 20 mph at splashdown only 20 minutes later. 

She stares at her screen, watching the system timeline execute onboard commands as algorithms work to detect reentry. Suddenly—and predictably—the data drops out. And for an agonizing two minutes, she waits for communication to be restored. Soon, she’ll know if the vehicle can achieve the most critical part of the mission: bring passengers safely home. Will the new heat shield—the largest of its kind ever made—survive the 4,000 degree temperature? Will the parachute system deploy as planned?  

“Right on schedule, I saw the video feed from a high-altitude drone that captured the final stages of the capsule’s descent,” Nujoud says.  “It had successfully passed through the plasma blackout, and I was stunned by how fast it was moving. At 24,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the parachutes opened in sequence—just as the timeline dictated. And a few minutes later, we all cheered as we watched Orion splash down.”

 

 

 

I've learned the fine art of highly complex integration, and that's a specialized skill that NASA truly values.

Rebekah Anchondo

Booz Allen, Lead Engineer

Landing Sequence

Splashdown

Parachutes are notoriously hard to design, deploy and operate. A small change in stitching, packing or time sequence affects performance in unpredictable ways. It’s equally tough to model the wide variety of variables and interactions between parachutes and vehicle dynamics throughout entry, descent and landing. These are a few of the many engineering challenges that confronted Orion’s Entry, Descent and Landing team as they prepared for the vehicle’s first test flight. 

As deputy system manager of this team, Booz Allen’s Senior Lead Technologist Yasmin Ali collaborates with NASA’s prime contractor through the entire development lifecycle. For Orion’s first test flight, she analyzed and tested four different designs before arriving at an effective landing sequence. She was responsible for the hardware that triggered the system’s three-phase deployment and its integration with multiple vehicle systems. She stood on the ground at NASA’s Yuma, Arizona test site and watched the parachutes deploy through their entire sequence. And during the test flight itself, she monitored the pyrotechnics used to deploy mortars and the guidance system that positioned Orion for its landing sequence. 

“It’s hard to describe the thrill of seeing those parachutes open,” Yasmin says. “They looked phenomenal, and I was so awestruck I almost forgot my job for a second. This outcome, after all the planning, design and redesign, was probably the biggest milestone of my career.”

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250 Miles Away

Space Odyssey

The opportunity of a lifetime for aerospace engineers like Nujoud and Yasmin is the latest chapter of nearly four decades of collaboration between NASA and Booz Allen.

Orion operates at the leading edge of an integrated human space program that spans ground systems, the Space Launch System rocket, the ISS, and long-range planning for missions to explore deep space. With offices at 9 of 10 NASA centers, Booz Allen works across NASA’s human spaceflight program while providing integration support that keeps all work streams well aligned.

A multidisciplinary team of Booz Allen engineers supports the Modeling, Analysis, Visualization, Robotics, and Integration Center responsible for determining and tracking the external and internal configuration of ISS. The visualization and hardware tracking tools they created, including the interactive CAD animation of the ISS assembly sequence, give all stakeholders easy access to data for the past, present and future configurations of ISS. The team’s ongoing analysis also provides essential data used to position the vehicle’s altitude and guide it through the higher and lower Earth orbits as the Solar Cycle changes.

“Each time a new module is added or a different vehicle arrives, mass property and aerodynamic analysis must be performed to ensure NASA can still control the ISS,” says Booz Allen Lead Engineer Rebekah Anchondo. “Analyzing potential configurations used to take six months, but by applying on-site, real-time innovations, we can now get the answers in less than a week.”

Rebekah and a select team of engineers are highly involved in the commercial activity that brings crew members and payloads to and from the station. They perform the traffic modeling analysis to define and track the flow of spacecraft and supplies delivered to the station as well as the docking locations for all visiting spacecraft.

They also help determine where systems equipment and payloads will be installed both inside and outside of ISS. They even take out the garbage― planning for the disposal of obsolete equipment and for the eventual sunset of the vehicle itself.

“ISS is an important building block for deep space exploration,” says Chief Technologist and Booz Allen team lead Robert Puckett. “The same commercial strategy and protective technologies NASA is using with the earth-reliant ISS may serve a similar outpost in deep space that can support human missions lasting two to three years.”

  • The Delta IV Heavy rocket with NASA’s Orion spacecraft mounted atop, lifts off Dec. 5, 2014, in Florida. Orion will orbit Earth twice before landing in the Pacific Ocean. No one was aboard Orion for the flight test, but the spacecraft is designed to reach destinations never before visited by humans, including an asteroid and Mars.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • An camera onboard Orion captures separation of the service module fairings following lift off. Orion will complete a two-orbit, four-and-a-half hour mission to test systems critical to crew safety, including the launch abort system, heat shield and parachute system.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • Orion returns to Earth after a successful flight.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • Navy divers attach a towing bridle to Orion after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

  • After being recovered from the Pacific Ocean, Orion is moved by crane for placement in the crew module transportation fixture. Orion is being prepared for the overland trip back to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

    Photos Courtesy of NASA

Four and 21

No Room for Error

In its next phase, Orion will apply insights from ISS research and two test flights to propel four astronauts into lunar orbit, sustain them in deep space for 21 days, and bring them safely home. “Safety is always NASA’s top priority, yet there are many ways to address technical risks,” says Nujoud. “As engineers and mission planners, we consider how technology decisions impact the crew’s performance and safety. Missions also require meticulous planning, and there’s little margin for error.”

Planning for Orion’s second test flight is already underway. Orion was designed as a multipurpose vehicle, with plug-and-play architecture that accommodates different kits for various missions. As the mission planning lead, Booz Allen analyzes what engineering challenges future missions will pose and helps determine what kits the prime contractor Lockheed will build and install. For example, the next unmanned Orion flight will test technology and systems designed to protect astronauts from the extreme temperatures, radiation and other environmental effects of deep space. “We place dozens of sensors on the heat shield to measure the heating environment during re-entry,” Nujoud says. “Other sensors measure stress and strain on the capsule to validate load models and monitor radiation inside the capsule and the performance of vehicle control and computer systems. These essential tests are paving the way for the first manned test flight.”

The first test flight helped us get through the difficult part of building the architecture. Now we’re ready to open the box and apply what we learned to an unbounded set of problems.

Nujoud Merancy

Booz Allen, Senior Lead Engineer

Creating the Roadmap

New Frontiers

NASA’s mission to deep space poses complex engineering and integration challenges that engineers have never before confronted or solved. In 2014 Booz Allen helped ISS crews prepare for eight different cargo spacecraft that delivered more than 50,000 pounds of supplies and science research equipment. For 2015, the team identified a port location that will enable ISS to test the new Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) and figured out where to put a new dining room table that can seat seven, a small detail but critical to astronaut comfort.

As Orion gains momentum, NASA’s future capabilities development team is tapping Booz Allen to help create the roadmap for deep space exploration while Booz Allen continues to build on a strong track record for helping the ISS operate more safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively. “We’ve already saved NASA an estimated $200 million over the life of the ISS program through a variety of engineering solutions that save energy,” says Booz Allen’s Bob Gates. “Now, we’re applying data science to 15 years of ISS flight data to coordinate system updates and validate—and perhaps even extend—the vehicle’s life.”

Booz Allen Hamilton- Partnering in Deep Space Exploration.