Cross-Agency SMA Team Overcame Unique Challenges with LADEE

Cross-Agency SMA Team Overcame Unique Challenges with LADEE

5-minute read


NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) — pronounced "laddie" — was a Class D robotic mission that orbited the moon to gather detailed information about the structure and composition of the lunar exosphere and dust environment. A thorough understanding of the moon’s exosphere, a classification of atmosphere that is so thin that molecules do not collide with each other, will help researchers understand other bodies in the solar system with exospheres, such as large asteroids, Mercury, and the moons of outer planets.

LADEE was launched on a Minotaur V rocket from Wallops Flight Facility on Sept. 7, 2013.

The objectives of LADEE’s seven-month mission were to

  • determine the global density, composition and time variability of the moon’s exosphere before it is disrupted by future human activity
  • document lunar dust conditions to guide possible design for lunar outposts and future robotic missions
  • demonstrate two-way laser communication from lunar orbit

The LADEE spacecraft was built with an innovative composite modular frame that was configurable for multiple mission types. Multi-use designs such as LADEE’s could drastically reduce the cost of future spacecraft development.

LADEE’s mission was terminated on April 18, 2014, when it was intentionally crashed into the far side of the moon.

The Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) was a mission of firsts from its production to its launch in September 2013.

LADEE, an explorer vehicle designed to orbit the moon and collect scientific data, was the first spacecraft ever to be designed, integrated, tested and built at Ames Research Center (ARC). It was the first lunar mission to be launched out of Wallops Flight Facility (WFF). And it was the first project of its scope to receive supplemental Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) support from other centers.

ARC Chief SMA Officer Steve Jara, with assistance from Deputy Chief SMA Officer Angela Melito from Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), led the multi-center SMA team made up of safety and quality engineers from ARC, GSFC, and Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

One of the biggest SMA challenges was to provide adequate support for the project. LADEE was completely assembled and tested at ARC, which required SMA support to provide real-time responses to problems, issues, noncompliances and anomalies.

“ARC is a strong research center, but we hadn’t built a spacecraft before,” said Jara. “We didn’t have the depth of SMA staff to backfill the additional slots I needed to ensure the mission success of LADEE.”

To fill that void, the team enlisted KSC SMA to support the Quality Assurance effort. Initially the team dealt with some culture shock as they learned to work with members from other centers.

“We had to learn how to merge the processes from Kennedy and Goddard and bring that to Ames,” Melito said.

The SMA staff shared past experiences, process improvements and lessons learned from previous projects at their centers, and these processes were integrated or evaluated for LADEE and the project’s risk posture.

Quality Assurance Lead Todd Brandenburg brought crucial SMA insight from his experience at KSC. He planned and coordinated the SMA support from KSC, setting up processes such as calibrated equipment, configured controls, and Problem Reporting and Corrective Action systems.

”They were not necessarily familiar with those kinds of processes and controls that we take for granted at KSC because we worked with them for so many years [on the Shuttle Program],” he said. “It wasn’t difficult to overcome because most of the team was very receptive.”

Even with these controls in place, the SMA team encountered obstacles as they worked through the mission’s many firsts. According to Jara, another major challenge was trying to meet schedule and cost demands while balancing SMA responsibilities. Because LADEE was a lunar mission, only certain launch windows fit the mission.

“Everyone wants to meet the launch date; no one wants to tell headquarters you can’t. But you don’t want to be too flexible or lenient, and then accumulate a bigger risk than you thought,” said Jara. “In SMA, cost and schedule are not the reason for our decisions and concern. We are aware of them, but those need to be secondary in our assessment, analysis, and decisions. A Class D Mission allows for increased risk posture, but the risk must be understood by everyone in order to make a sound decision.”

On May 3, 2012, the team encountered a setback when a mishap occurred during a sine-burst vibration test, a GSFC-developed test method that uses a vibration shaker and a quasi-static load to determine the strength of a spacecraft. During the test the slip-table that LADEE was mounted to malfunctioned, damaging the spacecraft’s structure and propulsion manifold.

NASA formed a mishap investigation team to find the root cause of the malfunction, and the LADEE project moved forward.

Brandenburg emphasized the need to hold to established SMA processes, even under mounting schedule pressures. “Sometimes the team has a desire to push or rush as you get close to launch to make sure all the requirements are closed out. But if you ignore a requirement or close it out too early, it can create a huge headache.”

After LADEE was built, it was transported across the country from California to WFF in Virginia for launch. A team of four SMA personnel, including Jara and Melito, accompanied the spacecraft to WFF to oversee the launch.

LADEE was the first lunar launch out of WFF.  Both the WFF launch team and the LADEE SMA team had to work with a new set of requirements, processes and conditions.

As the team started coordinating the launch roles and responsibilities, it became evident that WFF did not have the SMA staffing to help support the ground operation oversight. So the KSC team that supported LADEE as it was built and tested was brought on to support the launch after completing all WFF training requirements. The LADEE KSC System Safety team member, who understood the spacecraft’s special requirements, supported the final facility walkthrough and acceptance post-building modification at WFF. The SMA teams clarified roles and responsibilities for a mishap, and training solidified the process.

“LADEE created many new experiences and processes that the SMA team needed to support. Building and launching a satellite required many new requirements, processes, activities and support for ARC,” said Jara. He explained that the SMA team met these obstacles and added oversight for the new requirements. “These challenges were a little overwhelming at first,” said Jara, “but the team was flexible and engaged. We supported the project from beginning to end creating a strong cohesive team to help the project. Our success shows that we put the appropriate level of SMA into a very successful Class D project.”

LADEE launched on a Minotaur V on Sept. 7, 2013, and impacted the moon’s surface in April 2014 as planned.

Glen Liebig, chief of WFF Safety Office, said, “It was a beautiful launch. Everything worked exactly right… It was one of the cleanest launches and preps I have ever been associated with.”