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NASA has provided the launch industry with a pre- release version of the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination Unit (NAFTU) software code. This is an important milestone on the road to final certification of NAFTU, which is scheduled for February 2022.

NAFTU is a novel command and control system available to launch providers that can be deployed at all U.S. launch sites to ensure public safety during launch. Companies using the NAFTU software include Rocket Lab, which has a launch pad at Virginia Space’s Regional Spaceport ( NASA) at the Wallops Flight Facility.

“This is a major milestone that enables Rocket Lab and other U.S. launch companies to integrate the software now with their launch vehicle’s hardware and run performance simulations,” said David L. Pierce, Wallops Flight Facility director. “This is a key achievement toward enabling Rocket Lab launches from Wallops, in parallel with the NASA teams’ final safety certification steps, which are currently underway. Rocket Lab’s use of the NASA software will enable a high degree of confidence moving forward toward launch.”

NASA brought in corporate partners SAGRAD, ASRC Federal, Axient/MEI, and KBR to assist the agency in developing testing procedures for the software and in certification testing.

To ensure the ultimate success of the final safety certification of the software, NASA conducted formal software dress rehearsals, or “official timed dry runs,” of the test procedures in late December. These dry runs at NASA Wallops and at Axient facilities in Melbourne, Florida, went well and show the software test procedures and the software are performing as designed, said Pierce. 

“I am very proud of the entire NAFTU team for reaching these critical milestones of releasing the software to industry, as well as completing the test procedure official dry runs,” said Pierce. “With these dry runs completed, we have greater than 99% confidence that the official ‘run for record’ witness testing of the software and procedures in January will be successful. This, in turn, will lead to the flight safety certification of the software by the end February 2022.”

NASA Wallops, in collaboration with NASA headquarters, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Space Force and the Federal Aviation Administration, began development of the NASA Autonomous Flight Termination System in 2020, when the program was fully funded. The NAFTU system is more complicated than other proprietary automated flight safety systems (AFSS) because it is designed to be customizable and support a wide range of launch vehicles at each launch site. “While more challenging, the project will have the greatest overall impact and economic benefit by providing commercial launch providers with a common, certified system for flight termination,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Ted Mercer, CEO and executive director of Virginia Space.

Virginia Space owns and manages three orbital launch pads at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, which includes Rocket Lab’s LC-2.

Autonomous flight termination systems such as NAFTU are a key component of the launch spectrum of the future and a mandatory requirement for Department of Defense launches (DOD) beginning in 2025. The system offers a number of benefits, including wider launch windows, smaller low-level safety corridors that improve area clearance, and reduced need/cost for ground-based systems. AFSS will enable wallop launches and reduce the cost of access to space in the future, and NAFTU will be the system that leads this effort for many years to come.

“Automated flight safety systems are a game changer for enabling launches from Virginia’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA Wallops and decreasing cost for access to space in the future,” said Mercer. “NAFTU will be the system that leads this effort for many years to come.”

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