NASA plans for Flight Software Test raise concerns

NASA is currently planning three Artemis missions to the moon, including a test flight of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft for Artemis I, and human flights on the Artemis II and III missions.

After a meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, one of its members voiced their concerns about the plan to test flight software for its Moon missions.

There is an apprehension concerning the lack of end-to-end testing of the software and hardware used during the missions, from launch to landing. These tests have for goal to ensure that the flight software is compatible across different vehicles and in various environments, including turbulences and maneuvers in space.

Instead of having an end to end integrated avionics and software test capability, multiple and separate labs, emulators and simulations are being used to test subsets of the software.

Following the recent failed test flight of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft, it is hard to understand why no integrated, end-to-end tests were run for the mission. During this mission, rather than doing a software test encompassing the period from launch through docking to the station, Boeing did the test in chucks. Hence, the spacecraft was almost lost twice and did not complete its main goal: reaching the orbiting laboratory.

The report points out that flight systems should be developed for success with a goal to test like you fly.

To answer those concerns, NASA declares that they would be conducting integrated end-to-end testing for the software, hardware, avionics, and integrated systems needed to fly the Artemis mission. They also stated that the testing would be done across many facilities to support both system-level interface testing and integrated mission testing to ensure the software and avionics systems work together.

Following the Starliner incident, NASA established an independent review team to assess all Artemis I critical flight and ground software activities. Those suggestions have been taken into account to prepare for the upcoming Artemis missions, planned for late 2021 or 2022.