NASA notes Starliner’s excellent progress toward Orbital Flight Test launch

by Chris Gebhardt

During Tuesday’s NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting, Commercial Crew Program manager Kathy Lueders briefed the team of advisors on Boeing’s efforts to get its Starliner capsule ready for its first round of flights, noting how pleased NASA was with the company’s progress.

Presently, Boeing is targeting No Earlier Than August for the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) launch of Starliner in its uncrewed configuration – a mission that will see Starliner launch atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and perform an automated docking to the International Space Station.

Final testing before OFT:

Ms. Lueders’ presentation confirmed several key and positive facts of Starliner’s progress toward its OFT mission, including completion of all Structural Test Article testing, ongoing work for parachute system qualification (that actually isn’t needed before OFT), and the critical completion of the Service Module’s hot fire test for low altitude aborts.

“Structural Test Article testing has been completed, and this is huge,” noted Ms. Lueders.  “This has been an extensive two year test, and the work done by Boeing on making sure that they structurally characterized Starliner [involved] a huge number of integrated system tests and then working through different technical issues that came up and fixing them and then retesting.”

In terms of parachute qualification, Ms. Lueders noted that the planned final qualification test two weeks ago ended with a balloon issue that did not damaged the test article.

According to sources, the test did not result in a launch/deployment of the capsule as the balloon issue occurred after inflation but before the test formally began.  In this regard, the test was scrubbed before it began.

Abort testing Starliner – by Nathan Koga for NSF/L2

This was the parachute test reported by some to have been a failure, but industry experts speaking to NASASpaceflight were adamant that this was not a parachute test failure because the balloons in question are only used during testing and are not a system installed on the Starliner capsules for End Of Mission landings.

Furthermore, the balloon issue encountered will not impact the final testing round for parachute qualification, with the main issue now being rescheduling the test with the White Sands Range during periods with acceptable weather conditions.

Pending range scheduling, the fifth and final parachute qualification test is currently aimed for sometime in the June timeframe, noted Ms. Lueders to the NAC.

Moreso, this final parachute test is not needed before the OFT mission this summer but is a requirement prior to the CFT mission later this year.

Nonetheless, Boeing plans to get this test accomplished in June as long as weather and the White Sands Range permits.

Nonetheless, the most significant step toward proceeding with the overall Starliner schedule was the successful completion of the Service Module (SM) hot fire test at the White Sands Space Center in New Mexico.

This hot fire test is the same one that experienced a failure last June which resulted in a hydrazine leak and a near year-long stand down to redesign some of the Aerojet Rocketdyne-built fuel systems leading to the SM engines.

These SM engines are the ones that would be responsible for pulling the Starliner crew capsule away from a failing Atlas V rocket during the early stages of launch – and thus is a very critical crew safety system.

While these abort thrusters will not be active during the OFT flight later this summer, they will be active during the Crew Flight Test (CFT) currently scheduled for later this year at the earliest.

The SM thrusters will not be active during the OFT mission because of a desire to test the functionality of the Emergency Detection System (EDS) on the Atlas V rocket and that system’s communication with Starliner’s flight computers first.

Basically, ULA and Boeing want to ensure that the Atlas V’s EDS functions properly and doesn’t erroneously detect an issue where there isn’t one – a detection which would trigger an abort if the OFT SM engines were active.

Thus, one of the integrated test objectives of the OFT mission is to verify the EDS and its communication with Starliner before activating the SM engines for the CFT mission.

And the need for those engines on the CFT mission gained a very positive step forward with the completion of the hot fire test last week.

Starliner launches atop an Atlas V N22 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, carrying new crewmembers to the International Space Station (Credit: Nathan Koga, for NSF/L2).

“We did our low altitude abort and nominal mission sequences and successfully completed the testing that we needed to do,” said Ms. Lueders.  “That was a tremendous amount of work by the joint Boeing-NASA-Aerojet Rocketdyne team to be able to refurbish the test article that had a failure last June, be able to turn it around in less than a year, and be able to finish up that testing.”

Additional elements that are proceeding through final interface and acceptance testing include the NASA Docking System (NDS), Space Station integrated rendezvous and docking simulations, final radio tests, the Crew Equipment Interface Test, and various microbial and fungal testing of the Starliner crew module.

Specifically, the NDS has undergone its final shock test to “make sure we understand the impact to the Boeing spacecraft if [we had to do] an on-orbit contingency pyro” separation from the Station, noted Ms. Lueders.

This contingency pyro separation is built into all vehicles that dock to the U.S. side of the International Space Station and would only be used if the nominal docking release mechanisms fail to operate.

In this scenario, small pyrotechnic charges would be blown to physically separate Starliner from its docking port and allow the vehicle to safely leave the ISS and return home.

Integration work remaining before OFT:

All of this final certification work is being done in tandem with Boeing engineers performing final closeouts of the Starliner Crew Module for the OFT mission inside the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) – formerly the Space Shuttle’s Orbiter Processing Facility bay 3 – at the Kennedy Space Center.

Closeouts of the Crew Module and its pending mate to Service Module 3 – currently scheduled for mid-June – are considered the remaining long pole items toward reaching a “Hardware Readiness” standpoint for an August launch of the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test.

“Really the Boeing folks are finishing up the final pieces of their Crew Module assembly and heading into final acceptance testing, which is supposed to start at the end of next week,” noted Ms. Lueders.

“So we’re really working through final acceptance testing on the vehicle to get it ready for OFT.  And then Service Module 3 is also in final testing.”

Ms. Lueders went on to note that this final integration period is a very dynamic time, with everyone paying great attention to detail for the final test results.

While everything right now is tracking toward a readiness date in August for the OFT mission, it would not be surprising to see a month or two slip to this mission’s eventual launch – not because of a hardware readiness issue but because of the final paperwork, verifications, Certifications of Flight Readiness from various NASA centers, and the final Flight Readiness Review process.

Starliner docked to ISS, with Japan’s HTV resupply vehicle visible underneath the Columbus module. (Credit: Nathan Koga for NSF/L2)

Moreso, as reported earlier, the Atlas V launch vehicle for the OFT mission has been at the Cape from months in storage, and all elements of that rocket are ready to be stacked inside the Vertical Integration Facility at SLC-41 on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Stacking of this rocket cannot begin until ULA’s pending Atlas V mission with the AEHF-5 (Advanced Extremely High Frequency 5) satellite for the U.S. Air Force and Missile Systems Center is launched.

That mission currently carries a No Earlier Than 27 June 2019 launch date with a window opening at 06:00 EDT (10:00 UTC).

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