Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success


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According to the NASA press release for yesterday pad abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, the test was a success even though one of three main parachutes did not deploy successfully.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of three Starliner’s main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. After one minute, the heat shield was released and airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes.

All reports say that this parachute issue will not effect the December 17 planned launch of the first unmanned orbital flight to ISS.

I find NASA’s reaction to this anomaly fascinating. Previously the agency repeatedly made a very big deal about the slightest anomaly by both Boeing and SpaceX on any test or procedure. While the agency’s response to these problems could have been reasonably justified, the caution it sometimes exhibited, often causing significant delays that might have been avoidable, was somewhat disturbing, especially when contrasted with the agency’s willingness to accept far more serious issues in connection with SLS and Orion.

Now however, the agency has no problem with the failure of one parachute to deploy during this test. While I actually agree with this response, the contrast is interesting and suggests to me that politics and deadlines (with the Russian Soyuz contract running out) are finally exerting some influence over NASA’s safety people. I suspect it has been made clear to them that unless something really seriously goes wrong, as long as the tests would have resulted in living astronauts, the safety bureaucrats had better not stand in the way of progress.

If so, this is very good news. It means that, assuming nothing really goes wrong with the remaining tests, the first manned missions are finally going to occur next year, relatively early in the year.

Posted at the Hayabusa-2/OSIRIS-REx asteroid conference in Tucson this week.

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8 comments

  • David

    These initial reactions to the test result don’t tell us very much. I’ll believe the culture has changed when we don’t see this result raised as a concern two dozen times during the run up to the first manned flight.

    I fully expect that there will be a review, Boeing will implement a fix, and there will be some kind of hardware test program, perhaps repeating this test or perhaps not, depending on what the identified issue is, before the manned flight. The question will be how quickly Boeing gets that done, and how long NASA takes to review and approve the results.

  • Richard M

    I won’t question that there’s a Boeing tilt and pressure to get these vehicles off the ground, but I also can’t see NASA giving a green light to the crew flight until Boeing sorts out this parachute failure. Even if they wanted to, ASAP would throw a collective fit (this is what they do).

    But this shouldn’t be a delay to the Boeing OFT flight. Kathy Lueders noted weeks ago that ths pad abort was not on its critical path. So, get it flying.

    Really though, much as I favor SpaceX in all this, we really do need these vehicles flying as soon as possible. Both of them.

  • Richard M: It occurs to me that,. rather than do another pad abort test, Boeing could actually test a correction to this parachute deployment issue during the return of the Starliner capsule after docking with ISS in December.

  • David

    Testing any fix on the december test would be great, but if you think Boeing can figure out what happened, get a fix developed and in place on that capsule without affecting the timeline of the December launch… well, I want to know who you are and what happened to the real Robert Zimmerman. Boeing has demonstrated over and over that it just doesn’t do anything relating to these space projects on that kind of timeline.

  • David. Heh. My problem is that I assume everyone should work at the pace demonstrated by SpaceX (following a very old and traditional American know-how and culture). I thereofore often forget that everyone does not work that way, by choice.

    However, if I can somehow encourage Boeing to improve its work ethic, why not?

  • David M. Cook

    The same thing happened to Apollo, one of three chutes failed during a pad abort test. This did not stall the program; it just showed that two chutes would safely lower the capsule.

  • Chris

    So it depends on the goals of the test:
    Capsule safe – OK
    Chute deploy. – 33% failure

    I agree with David, I have not seen modern “big-aerospace” able to turn an analyze-implement- test- reevaluate solution around in a month on anything including on how to put the roll on the toilet paper holder.

    If one chute can safely lower the capsule then there may be a slim justification. however, if not a deployment failure on this test does not look good if called a success….even if the high and mighty NASA “declares” it a success

  • wodun

    I don’t think SpaceX would have got the same reaction, so it doesn’t look like a change in how NASA operates.

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