Delays: As Important as Testing?

In a previous blog post we discussed the importance of testing, but sometimes delays are just as important. Right now for Morpheus the best decision has been to slow down and analyze our systems before testing again. As we progress through our schedule we have certain milestones we have to reach. In our current phase, we will test as necessary to learn about our vehicle and subsystem performance. This will help us evolve the vehicle design and meet the milestones leading to conducting high-energy flights next year.

A Morpheus tether test, just after ignition credit: NASA/Joe Bibby
Don't think that the team has been sitting idle waiting for a few teams to problem solve. For example, the GN&C and software teams has been taking advantage of this time to pour over the large amount of test data we have already collected. They have used this data to improve the control layers and Morpheus simulation. These updates will be tested soon (possibly as early as August 31) in another tethered test (#6) of Morpheus.

These two groups along with all the other subsystems have also been busy looking into upgrades for the next version of Morpheus, referred to as Morpheus v1.5. Besides upgrades to existing systems, this also includes the beginning of integration with the ALHAT (Autonomous Landing and Hazard Avoidance Technology) Project, an important step in our development as a lander prototype.

Below is a video summarizing our current progress using tethered tests, which have been invaluable. This team has been able to design, build, and then run 4 hot fire and 5 tethered tests all in less than a year. It shows the advantages of following lean engineering and management practices and these recent delays should not cast any doubt on that. If anything they prove that lean practices still follow the appropriate levels of safety and configuration control allowing us to determine solutions to problems as they happen.

Morpheus Improvements and Incident Comments

Morpheus is still early in its test phase.  The side by side video comparison below demonstrates the progression of improvements that Morpheus has made in its first four tethered tests.  From our first test where we experienced a controller problem that drove our thruster valve full open to our fine tuning of our data system to filter out the occasional inaccurate measurements that occur, the test sequence shows the improvements that are made from test to test.  Morpheus' design approach is to test often, learn and test again.  Between each test the team gathers and processes data captured in the various systems on Morpheus.  Test dates are set as important deadlines giving team members a bit more of a sense of urgency.  This helps drive the team to make quick but informed decisions for each subsystem.    However, there is a rigorous review before each test to make sure the team is ready for test.  The tether system offers an extra degree of protection for obtaining critical test data while still protecting the vehicle.

Test. Iterate. Test again.

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In regards to the grass fire after the last test, we work very closely with JSC Operational Safety and JSC Fire Protection Services before, during, and after each test.  JSC Fire Protection Services has staff at the test site ready to respond in case of any incident.  They also have existing protocols to bring in the Houston Fire Department for additional help.  Unfortunately immediately after the test and before the grass fire was contained, another fire call in an on-sight JSC building occurred and half the FPS personnel were required to respond to that incident.  While no one was injured and no damage was done to NASA or other property (outside of the grass of course) we do not want another grass fire of that extent.  JSC has initiated an incident review team to evaluate the grass fire response and develop mitigation strategies to allow testing to resume as soon as possible.

Fifth Tethered Hover Flight

In this fifth hover test of the vertical test bed Morpheus. Morpheus ran for the full 30 seconds of hover time. This was a very successful test with a near perfect hover.

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Test... Iterate... Test Again...

Another tethered test of the Morpheus vertical test bed. This flight was on Innovation Day at Johnson Space Center. We had around 300 onlookers during this test. This test looked better than yesterday. We now have lots of good test data. The next test will be even better.

Test... Iterate... Test Again...

Only six days

Only six days after the last test where the vehicle traveled on an unexpected trajectory, the Morpheus team was ready to test again. While not a perfect run, the drastic improvement shows how this new paradigm will be successful.

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This is why we test

Today the Morpheus team attempted a hover test under tether.  This test was the next incremental step in a series of planned tests leading to free flight.  Among previous tests were component tests, subsystem tests, integrated vehicle tests, and in the last week successful strap down engine ignition and firing tests.  The particular test today was intended to demonstrate a 40 second engine firing while maintaining altitude of five feet above the tether point.  Shortly after ignition the vehicle pitched over and control authority was lost.  The multiple redundant thrust termination system (a precursor to the flight termination system) executed and aborted the test.  The test team then executed all nominal and contingency procedures required to safe the vehicle.  All ground crew had been evacuated to 1000ft well before the test, per procedure.

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The team is examining the on-board data and the vehicle hardware to assess the issue or issues as well as reviewing ground procedures.  There are a number of ideas and theories but first reports are usually wrong so we won't speculate yet.  The vehicle appears to be in good condition and only minor damage to some ground wire and hardware was experienced.

It was a great test and learning experience as expected.  We obtained confirmation and a robust test of the thrust termination system, a necessary requirement for proceeding to free flight.   We stressed the test team and our ability to manage and control anomalies.  We obtained critical GN&C and flight control data to continue building confidence in the system.  We achieved another clean start of our in-house built LOX/LCH4 engine.  And finally we validated our philosophy of incremental build up and testing under the most controlled conditions possible.

This is exactly why we test.  This is exactly why we first test powerful energetic systems under tether.

Finally it must be remembered if you wait to light the engine until you know everything you want to know, there is no longer a need to light the engine…other than to discover you were absolutely wrong that you knew everything.

More later....

Matt Ondler
Morpheus Project Manager