Cosmic Connection

August 31, 2016 in Space, Technology

It was 1975 and like millions of other people around the world, Siamak Ghofranian was glued to the television.

The then high school student was watching the Apollo and Soyuz space vehicles dock together while in orbit, a historic moment marking the first cooperation between the American and Soviet space programs.

“That was the day that I became interested in spacecraft and docking systems – the first step in what would become my life’s work,” said Ghofranian, a Boeing Technical Fellow.

Forty years later, a docking system Ghofranian helped invent is being tested at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The NASA Docking System (NDS) is going through a series of tests in both Alabama and Texas, with current testing under way using the Six-Degree-of-Freedom Dynamic Test System. The test evaluates how the NDS docks with the Boeing-built International Docking Adapter, which was recently installed on the International Space Station (ISS) during spacewalks by NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins.

The NDS’ first application will be for Boeing’s Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner, which will provide NASA with crew transportation to and from the space station. Boeing designed and developed the NDS to meet NASA’s need for a flexible platform capable of supporting a variety of missions and satisfying the International Docking System Standard.

People from multiple Boeing organizations collaborated to bring the NDS to life. Among them were Ghofranian, Li-Ping Chuang, and Pejmun Motaghedi, who were recently granted a patent for the method and apparatus for the docking system. Their work developed the engineering foundation that helped fuel creativity across the company.

Thanks to an idea known as the Soft Impact Mating and Attenuation Concept - which Boeing envisioned 10 years ago - Boeing was ready when NASA issued the challenge in 2012 to build a better docking system for future space missions.

The design is less complex to manufacture and operate than older docking systems, is lighter, and features modern avionics, according to researchers. While docking systems have historically relied on vehicle thrusting to effect capture, the NDS uses its active Soft Capture System to eliminate the need for vehicle thrusting, greatly simplifying the job of flight controllers and astronaut crews.

“The docking system is a great example where talented people from around the company were able to work as a team to meet a critical need for the future of space exploration,” said Justin McFatter, a dynamics and controls engineer and director of the Six-Degree-of-Freedom Test.

As prime contractor for the ISS, Boeing has supported NASA in the design, manufacture, on-orbit construction, and ongoing sustaining operations, as well as key engineering support of the largest, most complex international scientific and engineering space project in history.

Ghofranian, who has been researching, evaluating and testing space docking systems for nearly 30 years, said there’s a great deal of pride in this – from his team who dreamed up the idea to those who helped make it a reality.

“This was an effort that required a lot of expertise and inputs from brilliant minds across the company,” he said. “Boeing can take pride in knowing we are helping connect people in the cosmos for decades to come.”