Tag Archives: Starliner

Budget constraints and technical challenges delay commercial crew

A NASA inspector general report released today cites both budget constraints imposed by Congress as well as technical challenges that will delay the first commercial manned mission to ISS until 2018.

When the commercial crew program began, NASA hoped to have routine flights by 2015, but that slipped in large part due to congressional underfunding in the early years. OIG noted today that its 2013 report found that adequate funding was the major challenge for the program. Congress has warmed up to the program, however, and now is approving the full President’s request so funding is not the issue it once was. Technical challenges now are the major hurdle according to today’s report.

The companies’ systems must be certified by NASA before beginning routine flights to ISS. Boeing anticipates receiving certification in January 2018 with its first certified flight in spring 2018, and SpaceX is working toward late 2017 for its first certified mission, the OIG report says. But it is skeptical: “Notwithstanding the contractors’ optimism, based on the information we gathered during our audit, we believe it unlikely that either Boeing or SpaceX will achieve certified, crewed flight to the ISS until late 2018.”

The report has been written prior to yesterday’s Falcon 9 launchpad failure, which will certainly impact the schedule negatively.

Essentially, the report claims that the program was delayed initially by about two to three years because of the refusal of Congress to fund it fully. The delays to come will be instead because of the technical challenges. While I tend to agree with this assessment, I also note that government reports like this are often designed to generate more funds for the agencies involved, not find a better way to do things. If we are not diligent and hard-nosed about how we fund this program I worry that with time commercial crew will become corrupted by the government’s sloppy and inefficient way of doing things, and become as bloated as Orion and SLS. This is one of the reasons I never complained when Congress short funded the program previously, as it forced the companies involved to keep their costs down.

Starliner and Orion drop tests

The competition heats up: NASA and Boeing have begun drop tests on land and water respectively of their Orion and Starliner manned capsules.

Both sets of tests are taking place at Langley. With Orion they are dropping the mockup in water to test how it will respond to a variety of circumstances. With Starliner they have finished the water drop tests and have begun drop tests on land.

Design problems for Starliner

In the heat of competition: Boeing is working to correct two serious design problems that cropped up during the construction of its Starliner manned capsule.

First the thing was weighing too much:

One issue involved the mass of the crew capsule, which outgrew the lift capability of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket selected to put it into orbit. The CST-100 Starliner will ride an Atlas 5 rocket with two solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage, and although Boeing and ULA engineers considered adding a third strap-on motor to compensate for the capsule’s extra weight, managers now have the spacecraft back under its mass allowance, Ferguson said.

Second, the capsule has a shape problem:

Ferguson said Boeing has a model of the Atlas 5 rocket and CST-100 Starliner in a wind tunnel to verify a change to capsule’s outer shape devised to overcome higher-than-expected aerodynamic launch loads discovered in testing. “They had one issue, a non-linear aerodynamic loads issue, where they were getting some high acoustic loads right behind the spacecraft,” said Phil McAlister, head of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development office in Washington.

Something here is rotten. It seems to me that Boeing shouldn’t be having these very basic problems right off the bat. In the past, under the older cost-plus contracts NASA used to routinely hand out, these kinds of problems would simply have meant that Boeing would have gotten more money from NASA, This time, however the contract is fixed-price. If Boeing has problems or delays, the company will have to bear the cost, not NASA. I suspect these problems might have occurred because of some cultural laziness at Boeing. Their management is used to not having to eat the cost of these kinds of mistakes. Now, they will. I expect the culture to therefore begin changing.

Boeing begins assembling second Starliner manned capsule

The competition heats up: With the arrival of the major capsule components to Boeing’s Florida facility the company has begun assembly of its second Starliner manned capsule.

Following closely behind the joining of the two major hull components for the Structural Test Article (STA) of the CST-100 Starliner, Boeing and NASA are marking the arrival of the upper dome, one half of the Starliner pressure vessel, for the second Starliner module. The three components will undergo separate outfitting operations in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) where wiring lines, avionics and other systems will be installed and tested before the pieces are connected to form a complete Starliner.

This second Starliner module is known to Boeing as Spacecraft 1. Once completed inside C3PF, Starliner Spacecraft 1 will be outfitted with electrical and fluid systems before engineers will attach the outer thermal protection shielding and the base heat shield that will eventually protect crewmembers during re-entry. Starliner Spacecraft 1 will be 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 article provides good detail about the upcoming Starliner test schedule.

First manned Starliner flight delayed

Boeing has revealed that the first manned flight of Starliner will be delayed until 2018.

This delay for Boeing is not really a surprise. Unlike SpaceX, the company had done very little actual development work on the capsule before winning its contract from NASA. They therefore have a lot more to do to become flight worthy. My one worry is their contract. If the contract is fixed price, as with the original cargo contracts awarded SpaceX and Orbital ATK, Boeing will have no incentive to delay, as they won’t be paid anything until they achieve specific milestones and will get no additional monies to cover the added costs of the delay. If the contract is cost-plus, however, NASA’s traditional contract system used for SLS, Orion, and almost every other boondoggle since the 1960s, then Boeing will be paid regardless of the delay, and NASA will also be on the hook for paying the additional delay costs, thus giving Boeing an incentive to slow walk the construction.

I think the contract was fixed-price, but am not sure. Anyone out there have an answer?

Drop test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule

The competition heats up: Boeing has successfully dropped a fullscale test vehicle of its Starliner manned capsule into water.

Video below the fold. It isn’t very spectacular, as all they do is lift the capsule up about 35-40 feet and then drop it at an angle into a tank of water. Nonetheless, it shows that construction is moving forward briskly.
» Read more

Starliner schedule shapes up

The competition heats up: The schedule and launch plans for Boeing’s manned Starliner spacecraft are now becoming solidified.

For Boeing, Starliner will first launch on an uncrewed test flight to the Station via the “Boe-OFT” mission in April or May, 2017 – on a 30 day mission, ending with a parachute-assisted return. Should all go to plan, the second mission will involve a crew on a mission designated “Boe-CFT”, launching sometime between July and September, 2017, on a 14-day mission to the ISS.

The article also outlines the launch procedures Boeing intends to follow, some determined by the company and some by NASA’s complex safety rules. One interesting tidbit about Starliner revealed here that I was unaware of previously is that the capsule is made of separate top and bottom units that are only fitted together late in the launch process, allowing for easier access.

Boeing reveals landing sites for Starliner

The competition heats up: Boeing has revealed the prime landing sites for its manned Starliner capsule.

Boeing is still finalizing a list of five candidate landing sites in the Western United States, but the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah will initially be the prime return locations, said Chris Ferguson, deputy manager of the CST-100 Starliner program. The capsules will parachute to airbag-cushioned landings after each mission, beginning with the CST-100’s first test flights in 2017.

The article also outlines the overall status of Starliner, including what sounds to me like some scheduling and design concerns:

Boeing is taking a different approach to development of its human-rated spacecraft than SpaceX, which has already completed a pad abort test and plans an in-flight abort demo in late 2016. SpaceX is testing as it goes, while Boeing is doing more design work up front. “A lot of focus is on ensuring, at this phase, that we’ve got full rigor in all our processes and all of our designs, really trying to buy down the risk that something could come up downstream to perturbate either our design or our schedule,” Mulholland said.

Boeing plans no such in-flight escape test, and Mulholland said it can prove out the CST-100 abort system through wind tunnel analyses. “That’s our philosophy — to make sure we don’t run a test just to go run a test,” Mulholland said. “We make sure we fully understand all the requirements that we need to certify to, and we pick the best approach.”

Mulholland said the sequence of test flights in 2017 is tight, but Boeing’s schedule has margin to achieve the start of operational missions by the end of that year. Managers decided to move the pad abort test from early 2017 to August, a change that Mulholland said created more margin in the schedule leading to the first crew flight. [emphasis mine]

The lack of an in-flight test of the abort system is worrisome. This sounds just like NASA and Boeing in the shuttle era when they repeatedly made overconfident claims about the shuttle’s reliability and safety that were completely unrealistic, based not on tests but on computer simulations. The tight schedule also is a concern, especially because of the corporate culture of Boeing, which has a history of using these contracts to squeeze money from the government while putting a low priority on actually building anything.

I fear that might be what is happening here, especially since Boeing, unlike SpaceX, refused to build much of anything prior to the announcement of its Starliner contract. The company does not like to take any risks at all.

Boeing names its CST-100 manned capsule Starliner

The competition heats up: Boeing today unveiled “Starliner” as the new name for its CST-100 manned capsule.

This intensifies the competition because the new name is something the public can grab and identify. As long as Boeing was using the boring acronym they were holding back to stay in the boring do-nothing pork-laden government-funded NASA environment. Grabbing the public means they want the public to buy this product.

Posted from Spokane, Washington.