The Safety Panel is “big concern” with NASA’s plans to test Moon mission software.

The Safety Panel is “big concern” with NASA's plans to test Moon mission software.
Enlarge / The team at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility moves the Core Stage to a barge in January and carries it to a test stand in Mississippi.


An independent panel evaluating the safety of NASA activities has raised serious questions about the space agency’s plans to test flight software for lunar missions.

At an aerospace safety advisory panel meeting on Thursday, one of its members, former NASA flight director Paul Hill, explained the panel’s concerns after speaking with managers on NASA’s first three Artemis missions. This includes test flights of space launch system rockets and Orion spacecraft for Artemis I and human flight of Artemis II and III missions.

Hill said the safety panel is concerned about the lack of “end to end” testing of the software and hardware used during these missions, from launch to landing. These comprehensive tests ensure that your flight software is compatible with a variety of vehicles and environments, including turbulence in space.

“The panel expressed great concern about the planning of the end-to-end integration test function, especially for flight software,” said Hill. “We don’t have end-to-end integrated avionics and software testing capabilities. Instead, we are testing a subset of our software using several separate labs, emulators, and simulations.”

The safety panel was also struggling to understand why NASA didn’t learn lessons from him. Last failed test flight Of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, Hill said. (Boeing is also the main contractor of the core phase of the space launch system rocket).

Prior to the test flight of the Starliner crew capsule in December 2019, Boeing did not run integrated end-to-end tests for missions scheduled to dock at the International Space Station. Rather than running a software test that covers an approximate 48-hour period from launch to docking to the station, Boeing split the test into chunks. As a result, the spacecraft was almost twice lost and failed to achieve its main goal of reaching an orbiting laboratory.

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Hill referred to a proprietary report from the NASA Center for Engineering and Safety (NESC) released on September 8, which raised similar concerns about attempts to run software tests in several centers and laboratories.

“It’s not clear to the panelists that the current plans and processes leverage the lessons learned,” Hill said. “The NESC report emphasizes that NASA’s operations team needs to develop as many flight systems as possible to be successful with the goal of training and testing the way they fly, as if flying the same way they fly.”

Responding to these concerns, a NASA spokesman admitted that the agency would be conducted at multiple facilities, but said it would actually perform end-to-end testing.

Kathryn Hambleton said, “NASA is conducting integrated end-to-end testing of the software, hardware, avionics, and integrated systems required to perform the Artemis mission.” “Using the institution’s sophisticated software development labs, the teams at SLS, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems use real flight hardware and software, as well as emulators, software versions that test how each team tests the code and how it works across the board. Integrated Systems — Supports both system-level interface testing and integrated mission testing to ensure software and avionics systems work together.”

After the Starliner accident, NASA chief engineer formed an independent review team to evaluate all Artemis I’s critical flight and ground software activities, she said. These recommendations were reflected in preparing for the Artemis mission, which is scheduled to start flying in late 2021 or 2022.

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