Boeing Starliner trio preparing for test flights

by Chris Bergin

Boeing is progressing through various stages of assembling the first three CST-100 Starliner spacecraft – the latter of which will launch a NASA crew on a test flight to the International Space Station (ISS). A number of major milestones are upcoming, including a Design Certification Review (DCR) for trips to the orbital outpost.


Part of the tag team effort with SpaceX’s Dragon 2 that’ll return US independence for crew launches, a capability lost when Atlantis landed at the conclusion of STS-135 in 2011, Starliner’s goal is to safely launch and return NASA astronauts to and from the ISS.

2015-08-11-150714Boeing and SpaceX are under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), working to a similar framework as the highly successful Commerical Resupply Services (CRS) program.

Technically, there are numerous Starliners in the Boeing stable, ranging from test vehicles used on parachute drop tests, through to the actual spacecraft that will launch the first crew to complete the test program and validate the opening crew rotation for NASA.

The first major flow involved the Structural Test Article (STA). Boeing has conducted arc jet testing, landing qualification tests, and pressure tests on this vehicle.

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Following closely behind the STA was the arrival of the upper dome, one half of the Starliner pressure vessel, for the “Spacecraft 1” Starliner.

The major components underwent separate outfitting operations in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) where wiring lines, avionics and other systems were installed and tested before the pieces were connected to form a complete Starliner.

Inside C3PF, Starliner Spacecraft 1 was outfitted with electrical and fluid systems before engineers attached the outer thermal protection shielding and the base heat shield that will eventually protect crewmembers during re-entry. It also enjoyed a successful “Power On” milestone.

However, this Starliner will only be going on a short hop uphill, used in the pad abort test to validate that the launch abort system will be able to lift astronauts away from danger in the event of an emergency during launch.

The test is currently scheduled to take place in the second quarter of next year at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

Status information in L2 noted Boeing engineers are working around the clock to complete the Spacecraft-1 Crew Module (CM) acceptance and Design Verification Requirement (DVR) testing.

This comes after the installation of the Spacecraft-1 Service Module propulsion system tubing, manifolds and associated hardware in preparation for the system leak test.

In what is a multi-flow, Boeing is also continuing with assembly on the Spacecraft-2 and Spacecraft-3 Crew Module Upper Domes.

These two spacecraft are destined to be tested in space.

An uncrewed test mission to the ISS, the Boe-OFT (Boeing Orbital Flight Test) Starliner will be launched by ULA’s Atlas V (AV-080) which is already being prepared for the mission at its Alabama birthplace.

The duo will launch from ULA’s SLC-41 pad at Cape Canaveral, which has already been modified to cater for Starliner, most notably with the construction of a crew tower that will be used by astronauts and pad crews.

The latest status report for Spacecraft-2 noted engineers had completed fit check and assembly of Air Bag Backing Panels – and are continuing with the installation of propulsion brackets.

The spacecraft will conduct a mission believed to be two weeks in duration, including the first docking between a Starliner and the ISS, prior to returning for a landing to conclude the test flight.

Providing all goes to plan with the Boe-OFT mission, the next launch will be the first crewed mission on a Starliner. This mission, desginated as Boe-CFT (Boeing Crew Flight Test), is understood to be a mirror of the the Boe-OFT flight, bar the obvious inclusion of humans onboard the vehicle.

The Boe-CFT mission is likely – based on natural schedule stretch – to take place in early 2019.

Status information for Spacecraft-3 notes Boeing is continuing the installation of secondary structures.

While these flows are ongoing, Boeing is scheduled to hold a Design Certification Review (DCR) early in December, paving the way for the two test flights to the Station.

These reviews cover numerous elements, such as the NASA Docking System (NDS) and will initiate the cover and harness modifications on the NDS.

Despite recent schedule pressures that have resulted in Starliner moving its target dates to the right, NASA appears to be pleased with the progress being made by Boeing – and SpaceX – as they press toward the ultimate goal of removing the reliance (and cost) of having to use the Russian Soyuz for the transportation of its astronauts to the ISS.

A recent CCP overview noted Boeing and SpaceX are “meeting contractual milestones and maturing their designs as well as providing increased insight opportunities for the NASA team”.

The focus for NASA is a smooth test flight schedule, with completed objectives, which will play into the certification process that NASA requires before it allows NASA astronauts to ride uphill on a commercial vehicle.

While the agency added there is significant work ahead in preparation for flight, there is a robust and efficient process in place for certification.

(Images: Boeing, ULA, NASA and 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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