Boeing cleared a crucial test on the way to returning the United States to human spaceflight launch capabilities by completing a successful pad abort test of the CST-100 Starliner Nov. 4, 2019.
During the test designed to simulate a launch pad emergency, an uncrewed Starliner spacecraft lifted off under its own power from Launch Complex 32 at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The vehicle’s numerous integrated systems performed what would be needed to successfully propel the capsule away from its Atlas V launch vehicle at any point during the ascent.
“The test team and spacecraft performed flawlessly,” said Boeing Starliner Program Manager John Mulholland. “Emergency scenario testing is very complex, and today our team validated that the spacecraft will keep our crew safe in the unlikely event of an abort.”
At T-0 in the countdown, Starliner fired its four launch abort engines (LAEs) and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control (OMAC) thrusters. Five seconds into flight, the abort engines shut off as planned, transferring steering to the control thrusters for the next five seconds. With 190,000 lb of thrust, the spacecraft quickly pushed up and away from the test stand, flying nearly a mile in less than 20 seconds.
A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500ft. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and a few seconds later, the service module separated from the crew module to free fall as planned. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test and crew safety.
After one minute into the test, the vehicle’s base heat shield was released, allowing the Starliner’s air bags to deploy in preparation for landing. The crew module touched down 95 seconds after the abort engines fired.
“We’ve tested all these systems individually, so we know the propulsion system fires at the intended levels, and we know the parachutes can support the vehicle and safely slow it down, but the real test is making sure those systems can perform together. That’s when you know these systems are ready to fly people,” said Boeing’s Pad Abort Test Flight Director Alicia Evans.
Conducting this test over ground helps to preserve the crew module for reuse, and Boeing will use the data from this test to further validate system performance during nominal landing operations. Starliner is designed to be the first American-made orbital crew capsule to land on land, which will help make the crew modules reusable up to 10 times.
Starliner’s pad abort test is a critical milestone ahead of flying Boeing and NASA astronauts to the International Space Station on Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, and for flying operational missions to the station for NASA.
Starliner is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to the International Space Station from American soil.
“Tests like this one are crucial to help us make sure the systems are as safe as possible,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. “We are thrilled with the preliminary results, and now we have the job of really digging into the data and analyzing whether everything worked as we expected.”
Boeing’s next mission, called Orbital Flight Test, will launch an uncrewed Starliner spacecraft to the station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. Launch is targeted for Dec. 17, 2019.