Boeing Gets One Step Closer to CST-100 Starliner Crewed Flight Test

Boeing Gets One Step Closer to CST-100 Starliner Crewed Flight Test

Boeing conducted a test of its pad abort system for the CST-100 Starliner crew capsule today at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  The abort system is designed to protect the crew if anything goes awry during launch.  The test went well today although the deployment of one of the three main parachutes failed.  Boeing says that the system has a lot of redundancy and two parachutes are sufficient to ensure the crew’s safety.

Boeing is developing CST-100 Starliner as part of a public-private partnership with NASA through its commercial crew program.  SpaceX is developing a separate system, Crew Dragon.

Both companies are proceeding through a series of tests before astronauts can make test flights of the systems to the International Space Station (ISS).  Among them are tests of abort systems designed to separate the crew capsules from their rockets and propel them to a safe landing in the ocean.  The pad abort test for Crew Dragon took place in 2015 and SpaceX is getting ready for a different In-Flight Anomaly (IFA) test in the next few weeks.

Each company must conduct an uncrewed flight test and then a crewed flight test, both to the International Space Station (ISS), before gaining certification from NASA for operational flights.

Boeing’s uncrewed flight test, called the Orbital Flight Test (OFT), is scheduled for December 17.  It will fly to and dock with the ISS for several days before returning to land somewhere in the western United States.

Boeing is the first U.S. company to attempt landing on land with a spacecraft like this.  The Soviet Union/Russia has always landed its crew spacecraft — Vostok, Voskhod, and the several versions of Soyuz — on land, but U.S. spacecraft of this type typically land in the ocean. That was true for  Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo.  SpaceX’s Crew Dragon will also splashdown.  The airplane-like U.S. space shuttle was a completely different design and landed on a runway.

The White Sands Missile Range is one of the four locations where Boeing plans to land CST-100 Starliner and that is where the test took place today.  The others are Dugway Proving Ground, Utah; Willcox Playa, Arizona; and Edwards Air Force Base, California.

The capsule blasted off from a test stand and ascended about one mile, reaching 650 miles per hour in 5 seconds using four launch abort engines plus 14 orbital maneuvering and attitude control engines, all built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, that can go from dormant to a total of 181,000 pounds of thrust in one-quarter of a second.  CST-100 Starliner landed 95 seconds later using parachutes and airbags.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lifts off from a test stand at Launch Complex 32 on White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, Nov. 4, 2019.  Credit: NASA.


Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with its airbags deployed prior to landing at White Sands Missile Range, NM during Pad Abort Test, November 4, 2019. Credit: NASA TV

Boeing and NASA are reviewing the test results, but so far the only concern is that one of the three main parachutes did not deploy.  In a statement, Boeing stressed that the parachute itself  did not fail.  It was a deployment failure.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft descending under two, instead of three, main parachutes during November 4, 2019 Pad Abort Test. Credit: NASA TV

We will review the data to determine how all of the systems performed, including the parachute deployment sequence. We did have a deployment anomaly, not a parachute failure. It’s too early to determine why all three main parachutes did not deploy, however, having two of three deploy successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety.  — Boeing statement

The abort system is not needed for the December 17 OFT since no one will be aboard, but it must be working safely before the Crew Flight Test.  The date for that test has not been set.

SpaceX successfully completed its uncrewed flight test, Demo-1, in March, but suffered a setback in April during preparations for another test, the In-Flight Abort (IFA) test that will demonstrate the abort capability later in the launch sequence.  SpaceX now expects to do the IFA test next month.  The date for its crewed flight test, Demo-2, also has not been set.

NASA is anxious to get Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner flying so it does not need to rely on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from ISS.  The United States has not been able to launch anyone to the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It pays Russia for crew transportation services.


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