Boeing tests abort system on first Starliner spacecraft flight
November 4, 2019
— A new Boeing spacecraft has taken flight for the first time in a demonstration of its ability to keep astronaut crews safe during an emergency on the launchpad.
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner capsule flew a pad abort test on Monday (Nov. 4), lifting off from a test stand at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The uncrewed flight lasted only about a minute and a half long, but collected the data needed to verify that the Starliner's components can function together to fly away from a failing rocket booster prior to launching to space.
"The initial indication is that we had a very successful pad abort test," said Jessica Landa, a communications specialist on Boeing's Starliner team.
Flying from Launch Complex 32, the Starliner crew and service modules lifted off on the 160,000 pounds of thrust generated by four launch abort engines at 7:15 a.m. MST (9:15 a.m. EST; 1415 GMT). The flight originated from a 40-foot-tall (12-meter) stand topped by a test article of the launch vehicle adapter that will be used to attach Starliner to a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket for its ride to space.
Within the first second of the flight, the spacecraft's orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters initiated a roll to orient the Starliner for the remainder of its ascent.
The abort engines cut off as planned five seconds after liftoff. Nine seconds later, as the vehicle continued to coast up to it maximum altitude of about 4,300 feet (1,300 kilometers), the Starliner pitched around to begin parachute deployment. The Starliner's forward heat shield that had been protecting the parachutes on ascent was jettisoned roughly 19 seconds into the flight in preparation for landing.
Two drogue parachutes were deployed at about 20 seconds, followed by the three pilot chutes and two of the three main parachutes five seconds later.
"We have tested with two good mains in qualification and that is acceptable for our landing sequence," said Landa.
About half a minute into the test flight, the service module separated from the crew module to drop to the ground below. The service module was not planned or expected to survive the test.
At one minute into the test, the base heat shield was jettisoned, exposing the spacecraft's six airbags to inflate. Descending under the two red, white and blue canopies, the Starliner touched down about a mile (1.6 km) from its test stand, 95 seconds after it lifted off.
The Starliner will be returned to Launch Complex 32 for analysis. Boeing also plans to collect what remains of the service module, forward and base heat shield and drogue parachutes.
The pad abort test was one of the last remaining milestones before Boeing plans to begin flying crews to the International Space Station. Still to be conducted is an uncrewed orbital flight test (OFT), which is currently planned for Dec. 17.
Assuming the OFT goes as planned, Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Michael Fincke and Nicole Mann will launch on Starliner's crewed flight test (CFT) in early 2020. Operational missions to the space station will then follow, after NASA certifies the spacecraft meets its requirements.
"I had this trajectory of what this pad abort would look like for a long time and to actually see it happen was just fantastic," said Ferguson, who joined his two CFT crewmates at the test. "And it worked pretty much as I had always envisioned."
Boeing had planned to fly the pad abort test in 2018, but a valve issue during an abort motor hot fire test resulted in a propellant leak, delaying the program.
The Starliner crew module used in Monday's flight had aboard an instrumented anthropomorphic test device (test dummy) and a small payload of commemorative items serving as ballast. The crew module's exterior was covered in signatures by Boeing CST-100 Starliner team members and contractors.
Pad abort tests date back to the start of U.S. human spaceflight with the Mercury program in the early 1960s. Other similar similar trials were carried out prior to the launch of the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lifts off on its first flight, a pad abort test from Launch Complex 32 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (NASA TV/Boeing)
Flight profile for Boeing's Starliner pad abort test as published prior to the Monday, Nov. 4, 2019 launch. (Boeing)
Boeing's Starliner spacecraft sits on the test stand at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico ahead of the pad abort test. (Boeing)
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner Pad Abort Test flight insignia. (Boeing)
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew module sits atop its landing airbags after touching down from a successful pad abort test at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. (NASA TV)