NASA’s revolutionary flight safety system enabled a new era of space transportation with the successful January 24 flight of Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.
The mission, the first electron launch from the United States, was made possible by NASA’s work to develop the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU), a critical piece of flight safety technology required for the mission. Tuesday’s launch was the first ever flight of the NAFTU flight safety system.
With NASA providing command and control of the Wallops Launch Range, the Electron launched at 6 p.m. EST, Jan. 24, from the company’s Launch Complex-2 at Virginia Space’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on NASA’s Wallops Island.
David L. Pierce, director of the Wallops Flight Facility said “In carrying NAFTU across the finish line, NASA delivered an autonomous flight termination system unlike any other in service today, filling a critical gap in our nation’s launch facility modernization, We are proud to have enabled this and future US Rocket Lab Electron launches with our ground-breaking flight safety technology.”
While other, proprietary autonomous flight termination systems are in use today, NAFTU differs in that it was designed to be used by any launch facility provider at all launch ranges in the US to ensure public safety during launch operations. To date, 18 companies have applied for NAFTU software through NASA’s technology transfer process. Rocket Lab was among the first applicants for the software, allowing them to launch from Wallops.
The primary task of any launch facility
Ensuring public safety is the primary task of any launch facility. Launches flying without automated flight safety systems rely on safety officers to monitor all phases of the rocket’s flight using ground tracking and telemetry means. If the rocket goes off course, safety officers will send an order to end the flight. Trigger safety plans must compensate for human reaction time.
In contrast, an automated flight safety system such as NAFTU is an independent, stand-alone missile-mounted flight termination system that autonomously makes real-time flight termination decisions. This real-time decision-making capability provides many advantages, such as wider launch windows and smaller safety corridors for ships and aircraft. Additionally, since the unit is self-contained and mounted on a rocket, the need for ground-based tracking and telemetry systems is greatly reduced, reducing overall operation and maintenance costs. These savings are, in turn, passed on to start-up providers.
“The pace of launches is increasing at all of our nation’s launch distances, while maintaining the ground assets needed for launch is becoming more and more expensive,” Pierce said. “Many of these problems are mitigated by the benefits of autonomous flight safety systems such as NAFTU.”
Working with NASA Headquarters, NASA Kennedy Space Center, the U.S. Air Force and the Space Force, as well as the Federal Aviation Administration, Wallops began development of NAFTU in 2020, when the program was fully funded. The unit has been provisionally certified for Rocket Lab’s first US Electron mission, and full certification is expected by January 31, 2023.
NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility provides agile, low-cost flight and launch services that meet the needs of the government and commercial sector to access flight modes worldwide from the Earth’s surface to the Moon and beyond. From research aircraft, unmanned aerial systems and high-altitude balloons to suborbital and orbital rockets, Wallops’ flight assets provide a dynamic range of flight capabilities. In addition, the facility’s operational launch range and airport facilities enable the scientific, aerospace, defense and industrial sectors.