Crew operations training gears up for Starliner and Orion

by Chris Gebhardt

Operations to support the upcoming first crew flights of Starliner and Orion are increasing around the Kennedy Space Center as both vehicles head toward that major milestone.

Starliner operations have included United Launch Alliance (ULA), NASA, and Space Launch Delta 45 teams, as well as the crew for the vehicle’s upcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT), scheduled for no earlier than mid-April.

Meanwhile, Orion operations have centered around water egress practice for the Department of Defense (DoD) and NASA diving teams who will assist with crew recovery once the capsules splash down at the end of their missions.


With roughly two months until Starliner’s debut flight with crew, training operations with flight and ground personnel were recently conducted at the Florida launch site.

Teams practiced day-of-launch operations, including the suit-up of the two flight crew members and their travel to the launch pad — which will follow the traditional route, passing by the Vehicle Assembly (VAB) and Press Site before moving beyond LC-39A and out to SLC-41.

Pad training operations did not include full ingress procedures, which are deferred to when the rocket and capsule are on the pad and crews run through a dry dress rehearsal of launch day. A dry dress rehearsal includes most operations aside from the fueling of the rocket.

Starliner itself is in its Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) near the VAB at the Kennedy Space Center.

The C3PF includes the former Orbiter Processing Facility 3 bay used to process Shuttle Orbiters Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour between missions.

For Starliner, the capsule was mated to its service module on Jan. 19 inside the C3PF. Technicians will spend the next few weeks conducting integrated checks of the overall system before configuring Starliner for rollout to pad 41.

Starliner arrives at the International Space Station on its uncrewed Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) mission on May 21, 2022. (Credit: NASA/Bob Hines)

There, it will be stacked on top of an Atlas V rocket and taken to the launch mount for additional flight and ground personnel day-of-launch training.

Starliner’s CFT launch will mark the first time in 60 years that a rocket named Atlas has been used to carry humans into orbit. The most recent such use was Mercury-Atlas 9 with Faith 7 on May 15, 1963, which carried Gordon Cooper to a 34-hour mission in low Earth orbit.

The launch will also mark the first time in global space history that a woman will be a crewmember of the first crewed orbital flight of a new spacecraft type.


Nearby, at the Turn Basin at the Kennedy Space Center near the VAB, another set of teams, this time from the Department of Defense, NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and Air Force rescue personnel, were busy familiarizing themselves with crew recovery from an Orion capsule.

The two-week operation allowed teams to familiarize themselves with how the various NASA Equipment Package (NEP) recovery tools interface with Orion.

Under the direction of Tim Goddard (standing on top of Orion), teams practice attaching the stabilization collar to the base of Orion during Turn Basin operations in February 2023. (Credit: Chris Gebhardt for NSF)

This is crucial to the overall familiarization strategy as it is the same equipment used to recover Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules.

Illustrating this, the stabilization collar element of the NEP does not fit fully around Orion given that Starliner and Dragon are smaller in overall base heatshield diameter.

The two-week training involved land-based familiarization before moving into controlled water operations in the protected environment of the Turn Basin.

Part of the test involved familiarization not only with nominal crew extraction at the end of a mission but also contingency rescue operations should a crewmember be injured during the flight.

According to Tim Goddard, NASA’s open water lead at the Johnson Space Center, if an astronaut were to be injured and immobilization was key to their comfort and stability during extraction, teams would need to place that crewmember on a stretcher.

The front porch raft, part of the NEP, is connected to Orion. (Credit: Chris Gebhardt for NSF)

Three sets of two-person teams — the first set inside the capsule, the second set at the capsule hatch, and a third set on the front porch of the NEP raft — will then remove the crewmember.

Distribution of team members ensures that four hands are always on the stretcher as the crewmember is removed, both for the crewmember’s stability and to prevent an accidental loss of control of the stretcher.

In case control were lost, divers in the water would immediately assist, and the crewmember’s suit would provide the needed positive buoyancy while in the water — though a scenario like this is unlikely to happen given DoD para-rescue training and familiarity with difficult extractions at sea.

Goddard noted that these types of rescue operations — including high-angle and high-sea state recoveries — are types of rescues routinely practiced by the military para-rescue forces that would be involved in a crew recovery.

With operations complete in the Turn Basin, teams will now transport the Orion test article across the country for additional open-water training in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego in the summer timeframe.

Teams practice removing an immobilized crewmember from Orion. (Credit: Chris Gebhardt for NSF)

Overall, this will fulfill DoD and NASA’s initial familiarization and training operations ahead of training with the Artemis II crew and the rescue forces assigned to that mission.

For crew operations, initial familiarization will shift to the Johnson Space Center, where the large Neutral Buoyancy Lab pool will be used for the initial part of a “crawl-walk-run” training sequence.

According to Goddard, initial operations in the pool will be set to perfect overall water and lighting conditions to allow the crew to familiarize themselves with how to perform the egress operations themselves should those types of scenarios arise on their flight.

Once that initial familiarization is done, additional complications will be added, such as increased wave height and minimal to no lighting conditions to simulate nighttime landings.

The same approach will be used with the actual recovery teams before operations shift to open-water exercises in the Pacific, again off the coast of San Diego.

These operations will set the stage for a key element of Orion crew launch operations to be ready for the Artemis II mission, currently tracking an official launch target of no earlier than 2024.

(Lead image: Starliner is mated to its Service Module ahead of the Crew Flight Test in 2023. Credit: Boeing/John Grant)

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