Boeing and NASA progress through critical CST-100 Starliner milestones

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Boeing is making impressive strides on a series of tests and technical verifications for their CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. With Boeing and NASA now working through a Test and Verification Control Board meeting this month and Atlas V launch pad infrastructure build progressing on schedule, Boeing remains on track to launch their commercial crew spacecraft on its maiden voyage in spring 2017.

CST-100 Starliner

With just 17 months to go before the first scheduled uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 capsule, Boeing continues to make great strides in its efforts toward the CCTS (Commercial Crew Transportation System) contract award from NASA.

With former Orbiter Processing Facility 3 (OPF-3) at the Kennedy Space Center already transformed into the Commercial Crew & Cargo Processing Facility (CC&CPF), where the Crew Module (CM) and Service Module (SM) production and processing will take place for CST-100, work at the Atlas V launch pad is also progressing on schedule.

2015-01-30 11_09_33-ccicap_render_2.jpg - PaintAt the Atlas V pad, stacking of the crew access tower – that will provide critical human support and access for the CST-100 Starliner when it is at the pad – has seen tremendous progress due to a two-pronged construction approach.

That approach has seen major segment construction of the tower completed off-site from the launch pad, with the various tower segments then transported to the pad and stacked on top of one another in-between Atlas V launch campaigns – which in the month of October saw two launches within 29 days of each other.

2015-08-11-141226Moreover, the conversion of OPF-3 into the CC&CPF has followed Boeing’s lean production for all of the company’s commercial activities and has incorporated the best practices of Shuttle and Station integration, testing, and quality processes, notes the Boeing Commercial Crew Program update presentation.

Along similar lines, Boeing has designed its mission operations support for CST-100 Starliner by incorporating the best practices of NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate, which oversees mission control for the U.S. federal space agency, as well as engaging with astronauts throughout the planning process for CST-100.

2015-11-18-183822All of this work has led Boeing through a highly successful component qualification program designed to build toward several important tests in 2016 and 2017.

The first of those major tests will come in the spring of 2016 with the commencement of test operations on the Structural Test Article (STA) for CST-100.

This STA will be used throughout 2016 to validate numerous aspects of the Starliner capsule before being used for the all-important pad abort test in the early portion of 2017.

Prior to that pad abort test, Boeing will power up the CST-100 Qualification Test Vehicle for the first time in summer 2016 before conducting the SM Hot Fire test sequence in the later part of 2016.

2015-11-18-183436This will be followed by the first uncrewed flight of the CST-100 Starliner aboard an Atlas V 422 variant in April 2017.

Even though Atlas V launches with Starliner will not use a payload fairing, the Atlas V vehicle will still carry the 422 variant designation, indicating that it will fly, if it had a payload fairing, in the 4 m configuration with two solid rocket motors and a dual engine Centaur upper stage.

In fact, the first uncrewed test flight of the CST-100 capsule is currently slated to be the first time in the Atlas V program that a dual engine Centaur upper stage will be used.

All of this leads to the first crewed flight of the CST-100 Starliner in the summer of 2017 (currently manifested for July).

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Integration, testing, and verification: Key focus areas toward certification

But before those test flights can occur, Boeing will have to complete an intensive integration and test program to ensure that all components and subsystems of the CST-100 Starliner meet NASA’s CCTS requirements.

2015-11-18-183626In addition to wind tunnel testing and hardware and software integration, Boeing has implemented an integrated systems verification test sequence, including shock, vibration, thermal, and vacuum tests.

In all, 39 of those performance tests were completed this year, with 15 completed in the 90 day period preceding mid-November.

Moreover, according to the CCP update from Boeing, the company is now in dry runs for the activation of spacecraft procedures and has completed command and control systems verification and validation testing.

To this end, Boeing states that their “robust Certification of design is derived from NASA 1100 series and assigned applicable documents leveraging Boeing Functional Configuration Audit and Physical Configuration Audit reviews.”

This allows Boeing to have a vehicle test program designed to “provide direct verification of design and hazard requirements and supply the data from testing to correlate the design analytical models.”

In all, certification of Starliner is guided by Crew Transportation Technical Management Processes and the NASA Crew Transport Services Certification Plan.

These two guiding processes and plans come together to form the four-step CCTS certification.

The first step involves the definition of a requirements baseline, followed by the second step: the compilation of all necessary information to develop certification data packages.

Once this is accomplished, step three involves the completion of Certification Assessment Reports as well as numerous checklists regarding the module, segment, and systems of the spacecraft.

2015-11-18-184009Finally, certification is accomplished via the “Complete integration with and support of CCP and ISS boards gaining NASA’s approval,” notes the Boeing CCP update document.

Moreover, throughout the certification process, a Certification of Design is required to “ensure that the verification of CCTS requirements align with NASA specifications, CCTS design specifications, and vehicle configuration verifications.”

Finally, a Certification of Flight Readiness is needed to confirm that all verification and validation requirements and constraints have been “disposed with an acceptable level of risk to commit to flight.”

Nonetheless, as the certification process unfolds, differences between NASA standards and the results of CST-100 component systems testing are bound to occur.

2015-11-18-184042To this end, Boeing and NASA are currently working through a Test and Verification Control Board (TVCB) to evaluate these differences and agree upon a Verification Planning Matrix (VPM) for final CST-100 certification.

The TVCB is thus a moment for Boeing and NASA to discuss any differences in thought regarding Boeing’s proposed VPMs for CST-100 Starliner.

If those differences are resolved at the TVCB, then the VPMs will be baselined and Boeing will proceed forward toward final certification activities for Starliner.

If certain differences cannot be resolved at the TVCB, then they will be “elevated to [an] Engineering Control Board” for resolution.

If certain differences require Engineering Control Board (ECB) mediation, the results of the ECB will then be baselined into the VPMs, which Boeing will then use to complete certification of Starliner to ensure a robust commercial vehicle that will ferry NASA astronauts to the ISS in 2017.

(Images: NASA, Boeing and L2 – including renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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