NASA and Boeing have agreed to extend the duration of the company’s first crewed flight test to the International Space Station after completing an in-depth technical assessment of the CST-100 Starliner systems.
NASA found the long-duration flight to be technically feasible and in the best interest of the agency’s needs to ensure continued access and better utilization of the orbiting laboratory.
The extended duration test flight offers NASA the opportunity to complete additional microgravity research, maintenance, and other activities while the company’s Starliner is docked to station. The mission duration will be determined at a later date.
“NASA’s assessment of extending the mission was found to be technically achievable without compromising the safety of the crew,” said Phil McAlister, director of the commercial spaceflight division at NASA Headquarters. “Commercial crew flight tests, along with the additional Soyuz opportunities, help us transition with greater flexibility to our next-generation commercial systems under the Commercial Crew Program.”
The agency and its industry partner also agreed to adjust the target launch dates for flight tests, which will demonstrate Boeing’s readiness ahead of NASA certification to fly crew regularly to the station.
Boeing is now targeting August for its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test, although this date is a working date and to be confirmed. The decision to adjust that launch date was guided by limited launch opportunities in April and May, as well as a critical U.S. Air Force national security launch – AEHF-5 – atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 in June. The company’s first flight with astronauts on board, called the Crew Flight Test, is now targeted for late 2019, again to be confirmed closer to that timeframe. Boeing also will fly a Pad Abort Test before those two orbital flights to demonstrate the company’s ability to safely carry astronauts away from a launch vehicle emergency, if necessary.
“The uncrewed flight tests provide a wealth of data for us to analyze every phase of flight,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program deputy manager. “They offer a phenomenal opportunity for us to evaluate the end-to-end performance of the systems, and really set us up for flight tests with crew. Our Boeing and NASA teams are making tremendous progress without compromising safety as we prepare for launch.”
While the Starliner spacecraft for the Orbital Flight Test is close to complete, the additional time will allow teams to thoroughly focus on the test and validation activities well ahead of launch.
“We remain diligent, with a safety-first culture,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “While we have already made substantial progress this year, this shift gives us the time to continue building a safe, quality spacecraft capable of carrying crews over and over again after a successful uncrewed test, without adding unnecessary schedule pressure.”
Boeing continues to advance toward meeting the agency’s goal of returning human spaceflight launches from American soil to the International Space Station as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Orbital flight test progress
Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft for the uncrewed flight test is nearly complete. This spacecraft is designed to be reusable up to 10 times, and will be used for the company’s first full operational mission after certification. The Starliner team is working to complete all of the critical testing and integration on the spacecraft to ensure the shortest possible time between the completion of the uncrewed flight and the first launch of crew, and then to operational missions to station.
On March 11, Boeing mated the upper and lower domes of the same spacecraft inside its Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The two domes underwent outfitting with avionics, cooling systems, wire harnesses, fuel and life support lines, and other critical systems before being mated together. This is one of the last major milestones ahead of final processing and closeouts for flight.
NASA and Boeing teams also completed two parachute tests. In February, a “lawn dart” dropped out of a C-17 aircraft over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, and the parachutes performed as planned. These reliability tests are part of a special studies program NASA initiated to validate the robust design of Starliner’s parachute systems. Then in March at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Boeing completed the fourth of five parachute qualification tests. Successful completion of all five tests will qualify the entire Starliner landing system for flight with crew.
Another key milestone for the capsule included successful range of motion testing on the docking adapter – known as the NASA Docking System, or NDS – that will connect Starliner to the space station’s Harmony module later this year.
Pad Abort test progress
Boeing also is working on the Starliner spacecraft slated to fly the Pad Abort Test, which will demonstrate the abort engines can push the spacecraft about a mile up and a mile out from the test site. This test will take place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico ahead of the Orbital Flight Test.
As a precursor to the abort, the company is preparing to restart its Service Module Hot Fire test campaign at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico this spring. New hardware, including launch abort engine valves, have been redesigned and manufactured and are being installed on the test abort engines. The next set of new hardware will soon be installed in the pad abort service module.
Crew flight test progress
Boeing’s Crew Flight Test spacecraft recently completed its Environmental Qualification Test campaign at the company’s Space Environment Test Facilities in El Segundo, California. The Crew Flight Test vehicle underwent rounds of acoustics vibration, thermal vacuum and electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic contamination testing. These tests are designed to simulate the harsh environments of launch, ascent and orbit and also prove that the electronics systems will operate in space and not interfere with other satellites or the station.
NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke and Boeing’s Chris Ferguson are continuing preparations for the Crew Flight Test at Johnson Space Center in Houston. They are training on Starliner’s systems, including nominal and unlikely scenarios, such as water rescue training. They are also well into space station training, and are now focusing on becoming a longer duration crew. Mann and Fincke are training for upcoming spacewalks, and Ferguson is training to support them from inside the station.
Post-certification mission progress
The crew for NASA’s first operational mission on Starliner, Suni Williams and Josh Cassada, are continuing similar training. All five Starliner crew members are making regular trips to Starliner production and test facilities to get to know the people and the vehicles that will take them safely to orbit and back.
SpaceX demo-2 update
NASA also is working with SpaceX to return human spaceflight launches to American soil. The company completed an uncrewed flight test, known as Demo-1, to the space station in March. SpaceX now is processing the same Crew Dragon spacececraft for an in-flight abort test. The company then will fly a test flight with a crew, known as Demo-2, to the station.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and SpaceX are expected to reevaluate its target test dates in the next couple weeks.