Tag Archives: Starliner

More detail on pad abort test parachute issue

At a press telecon yesterday Boeing outlined in more detail the cause of the failure of one main parachute to deploy during its November 4 Starliner pad abort test.

In a call with reporters, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial crew at Boeing, said an investigation after the Nov. 4 test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico led the company to conclude that a “lack of secure connection” between a pilot parachute and the main parachute prevented that main parachute, one of three, from deploying.

The pilot parachute is designed to deploy first, and pull out the main parachute. However, Mulholland said that hardware inspections and photographs taken during “closeout” of the vehicle prior to the test showed that a pin that links the pilot and main parachutes was not inserted properly.

“It’s very difficult, when you’re connecting that, to verify visually that it’s secured properly,” he said, in part because that portion of the parachute system is enclosed in a “protective sheath” intended to limit abrasion but which also makes it difficult to visually confirm the pin is in place. “In this particular case that pin wasn’t through the loop, but it wasn’t discovered in initial visual inspections because of that protective sheath.”

Mulholland said Boeing is modifying assembly procedures through what he called “fairly easy steps,” such as pull tests, to ensure those pins are properly installed. Technicians have already confirmed that the same parachute linkages are properly installed on the three parachutes on the Starliner that will launch in December on an orbital flight test to the International Space Station. [emphasis mine]

That a hardware inspection and photos taken before launch revealed this issue and resulted in nothing being done should rise serious questions at Boeing about its quality control processes. Based on the press telecon, however, it does not appear that Boeing is asking those questions. From a different report:

[John Mulholland, Boeing’s Starliner program manager] praised the rigging team, saying “even before we got eyes on the hardware, that team on their own initiative (was) reviewing the close-out photos and the processes, and they identified the potential issue that was subsequently validated by hardware inspection.”

“Most importantly, they raised their hand and and let us know what they believe the problem was,” he said. “It’s really a testament to the transparency of that team. The speak-up culture that we have, that is what we need on this program.”

While it is good that the rigging team was willing to speak up afterward, it is very bad that their procedures allowed the launch to go forward. The company says it has now changed its rigging procedures, but I don’t sense any effort on Boeing’s part to find out why its so-called “speak-up culture” failed to have these engineers speak-up, before launch.

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New video of Starliner pad abort test

Boeing has released a new video of the Starliner pad abort test on November 4th, showing the full flight.

I have embedded the footage below the fold. The one aspect of this test that I have as yet not seen any explanation for is the red cloud to the left of the capsule’s touch down spot. It surely looks like the kind of smoke one sees from the release of certain toxic fuels. It was also something that the live stream video focused on, suggesting the possibility that its existence was important and needed to be recorded for engineering reasons.

Regardless, the fact that any onboard astronauts would have been safely returned to Earth, based on this test, should mean Boeing’s abort system is functioning properly. They note that they have pinpointed the reason one parachute did not deploy (“attributed to the lack of a secure connection between the pilot chute and one of the main chutes”), a problem that is probably quite simple to fix. Hopefully that one failure will not cause any significant delays in their future flights, including the first manned flight next year.
» Read more

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Boeing & NASA declare pad abort test a success

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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Boeing completes Starliner pad abort test

Embedded below the fold is the video of today’s Starliner pad abort test, cued up to just before launch. While the capsule landed safely, it appears that one of it’s parachutes deploy improperly. If so, this probably means Boeing will not be able to launch the unmanned demo flight to ISS on December 17.

No one during the podcast mentioned this fact, so it could mean that they considered the landing a success regardless. It is even possible that they planned it with only two chutes. Or it could be the corporate culture at Boeing, similar to the culture in the Soviet Union, to avoid mentioning non-obvious problems to the public in order to make believe all is well. We will have to wait and see.

UPDATE: More information here on the failure of one chute:

Video of the test appeared to show all three chutes deploy, but only two remained attached to Starliner – a significant issue that will have to be investigated and evaluated.

Hat tip to reader Col. Beausabre for the link to the video.
» Read more

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How to watch Boeing’s Starliner pad abort

Link here.

It is presently scheduled for 9 am (Eastern) on November 4, with a three hour window. The live stream on NASA television will go up about ten minutes before. Anyone watching should be prepared for long waits of nothing happening, followed by a very quick event over in mere minutes.

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Upcoming schedule of Boeing & SpaceX manned capsule tests

The next two months are going to be a busy time for both Boeing and SpaceX as they attempt to complete the last tests necessary to their respectively Starliner and Crew Dragon capsules before they each launch a manned mission to ISS.

Below is that schedule as of today:

November 4: Boeing will do a Starliner pad abort test, to be live streamed.
November 6: SpaceX will do a final static fire test of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco abort engines.
November-December: SpaceX will do a series of parachute drop tests of Crew Dragon
December 17: Boeing will launch Starliner unmanned in a demo mission to ISS.
December (third week): SpaceX will complete a launch abort test of Crew Dragon

The article at the first link above provides a lot of detail about both companies’ abort tests.

Assuming these tests all go as planned, both companies will then have completed all engineering tests required prior to their first manned missions. As far as I can tell, the only thing standing in their way at that point will be filling out the voluminous paperwork that NASA is demanding from them.

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December 17 officially set for Starliner unmanned orbital launch

Capitalsm in space: NASA and Boeing have now officially scheduled the launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first unmanned demo flight to ISS for December 17.

Boeing had announced this date earlier, but it is now official.

The next two months will be a very busy period for tests of the two privately built manned capsules being built by Boeing and SpaceX. Not only will Boeing fly Starliner on its first unmanned orbital mission, the company will also do a pad abort test of Starliner on November 4. SpaceX in turn will be doing a major parachute test campaign for Dragon, as well as a launch abort test, right now roughly scheduled for late November.

If all go well, both companies will be ready for the first manned flights of both capsules in the first quarter of 2020.

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Bridenstine’s visit to SpaceX a non-story

Link here. Essentially he just reiterated his desire to have the private capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing flying by early next year.

Essentially, the announcements in the last few days by Musk and Boeing about their upcoming testing and launch schedule for both Dragon and Starliner respectively took the steam out of his SpaceX visit.

In fact, I wonder what the politics were behind this. It is almost as if both companies wanted to take the steam out of his appearance here. Most intriguing.

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Boeing sets Dec 17 for launch of unmanned Starliner

Capitalism in space: Boeing officials today announced that they are targeting December 17 as the date they will launch their Starliner capsule to ISS for its first unmanned demo flight.

The article also says they are have set November 4 for their pad abort test of the capsule.

If both are completed successfully they will be ready for their manned demo launch to ISS.

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NASA in negotiations to buy more Russian Soyuz astronaut seats

Collusion with Russia discovered! NASA has begun negotiations with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency to buy more astronaut flights to ISS using Russia’s Soyuz rocket and capsule.

According to the story at the link, NASA’s last purchased ticket will fly in March of 2020, and these negotiations would buy flights beginning in the fall of 2020 and beyond into 2021. The story also cites statements by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine to CNN, confirming these negotiations.

Apparently NASA thinks the manned capsules being built by Boeing and SpaceX will not be ready by the fall of 2020, and needs to buy tickets from Russia because of this.

However, the only reason those American capsules will not have been approved and flown by then will be because NASA’s timidity in approving their launch. The agency’s safety panel as well as its management have repeatedly delayed these private American capsules, sometimes for very strange reasons, including a demand that lots of paperwork be filled out, and what I consider to be an unjustified demand for perfect safety.

Had NASA adopted a reasonable criteria for launch, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule could have flown three years ago.

Meanwhile, NASA seems quite willing to put Americans on a Soyuz rocket, launched by a foreign power whose safety record in the past half decade has been spotty, at best. In that time Russia has experienced numerous quality control problems, including mistakes that led to an Soyuz abort during a launch and a Soyuz parachute failure during a landing, corruption that forced them to recall all rocket engines and freeze launches for almost a year, and sabotage where someone drilled a hole in a Soyuz capsule prior to launch, a sabotage that Russia still refuses to explain.

It is unconscionable for NASA to favor putting Americans on a Soyuz with many documented safety issues, but block the launch of Americans on American-made capsules, for imagined safety issues that have mostly made no sense. In fact, the contrast makes me wonder about the loyalty of NASA’s bureaucracy. They certainly seem to favor Russia and Roscosmos over private American companies.

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Schedule for Dragon/Starliner manned flights revised

Capitalism in space: NASA has released a new updated planning schedule for the manned flights of both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner manned capsules.

Boeing’s first unmanned demo flight of Starliner is now set for September 17, 2019. This will be followed by SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, scheduled for November 15, 2019. Boeing will then follow with its first manned Starliner flight on November 30, 2019.

These are considered target dates. I have great doubts that the Starliner schedule will proceed as described, while SpaceX’s schedule is more likely.

The article also had this interesting tidbit about the upcoming launch schedule of Sierra Nevada’s unmanned reusable cargo ship Dream Chaser:

According to the document, the first flight of Dream Chaser will take place in a planned September 2021 timeframe and will see the vehicle remain berthed to the International Space Station for up to 75 days before returning to Earth to land on a runway for reuse.

There are clearly issues with all these commercial projects. For example, the GAO today released a new report citing the numerous delays in this commercial manned program and calling for NASA to come up with a more complete back-up plan.

Nonetheless, the 2020s have the potential to be the most exciting decade in space exploration since the 1960s. If all goes even close to these plans, the U.S. will have three operating manned spacecraft (Dragon, Starliner, Orion), two reusable cargo spacecraft (Dragon, Dream Chaser), one non-reusable (Cygnus), and a plethora of launch companies putting up payloads of all kinds, from planetary missions to basic commercial satellites numbering in the thousands.

Much could happen to prevent all this. Keep your fingers crossed that nothing will.

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Boeing completes Starliner thruster tests

Capitalism in space: Almost a year after the company experienced a fuel leak during thruster tests of its Starliner manned capsule, Boeing announced this week that those tests have now been completed successfully.

In a statement, Boeing said it completed hot-fire testing May 23 of the spacecraft’s entire propulsion system, including various thrusters, fuel tanks and related systems within a “flight-like” service module of the spacecraft. Those tests took place at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico.

A series of tests demonstrated thruster firings for in-space maneuvers, high-altitude aborts and low-altitude aborts. The company said the tests were all successful.

They now plan their launchpad abort test this summer.

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Are Boeing and SpaceX having parachute issues with their manned capsules?

There appears to be a significant conflict between what NASA has been saying about the parachute development tests for both SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner capsule and what the companies have reported.

The head of NASA’s manned program, Bill Gerstenmaier, has said that both programs have had “anomalies” during their tests. Both companies have said otherwise, with both companies claiming that all their parachutes have been successful. The article looks into this, and what it finds tends to support the companies over Gerstenmaier. There have been issues, but not as terrible as implied by Gerstenmaier.

So what is going on? I suspect that Gerstenmaier is overstating these issues as part NASA’s game to slow-walk the private capsules in order to make SLS not look so bad. He would of course deny this, but that denial won’t change my suspicions, in the slightest. I’ve seen NASA’s bureaucracy play too many games in connection with getting these capsules approved for flight to be generous to Gertenmaier or NASA. I don’t trust them. I’ve seen them make dishonest accusations against SpaceX and Boeing too many times already.

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Russia to launch two more American astronauts on Soyuz

A news report from Russia today announced that NASA has extended its contract with Roscosmos so that two more American astronauts will fly to ISS using a Soyuz rocket and capsule.

Russia and the United States have agreed on two additional places on board of Soyuz carrier rockets for journeys of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Roscosmos Executive Director for Manned Programs Sergei Krikalyov told TASS. “The documents have been approved,” Krikalyov said adding that it the procedure to sign the papers took place before a recently reported incident with Crew Dragon spacecraft.

According to Krikalyov, there was no new draft of the document as it was “Simply an update to the previously signed contract, everything was in work order and there was no solemn ceremony to mark the signing of the documents.”

This agreement practically guarantees that there will be no Americans flying on American-built spacecraft in 2019. Rather than push SpaceX and Boeing to get their technical problems solved quickly so they can start flying, NASA can continue to slow-walk their development by going to the Russians. For NASA bureaucrats, using the Russians is to their advantage. Any failures can be blamed on the Russians, not NASA due diligence, which would be the case if an American privately-built capsule failed.

Moreover, slow-walking the American spacecraft helps NASA avoid further embarrassment with its own manned system, SLS/Orion, which is years behind schedule. By slowing the private capsules, the delays with SLS/Orion won’t seem so bad.

In other words, NASA’s approach here favors itself and the Russians over the interests of our country and American private companies. It is too bad no one in the Trump administration notices, or cares.

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Starliner does first splashdown recovery tests

Capitalism in space: Though Boeing intends to bring its manned Starliner capsule down on land, it has begun water recovery tests of the capsule, working in conjunction with Air Force recovery teams, to prepare for the possibility that it might sometimes have to splashdown in the ocean.

While the article reviews the tests, it also contains this interesting piece of information:

While today’s test was the first in-water practice run for Starliner at sea rescue, it represents a much larger DoD commitment to space crew rescue operations – universal procedures that would be followed for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion.

During ascent for Starliner, Dragon, and Orion, the 304th Rescue Squadron will have two teams stationed along the east coast of the United States, one at Patrick Air Force Base (just South of the Cape) and the other in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Patrick team, Rescue 1, will be responsible for on-pad aborts that place a capsule in the water or for aborts in the first couple minutes of flight that place the capsule within a 200 nautical mile zone from the Cape.

After that distance is exceeded, the Charleston crew (Rescue 2) would be responsible for rescue of a launch-aborting crew vehicle anywhere else across the Atlantic.

The third team, stationed in Hawai’i, (also part of Rescue 2) would be responsible for any after-launch immediate landing need or off-nominal Station return contingency that places a Starliner or Dragon in the Pacific.

It appears that the responsibility for water recovery of American manned spacecraft has been taken over by the Air Force. Up until now SpaceX has performed its own water recovery for its unmanned cargo Dragon capsules.

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Boeing confirms delay till August for first unmanned Starliner launch

No surprise here: Boeing today confirmed that it is delaying until August for first unmanned Starliner test launch.

A statement issued by Boeing on Tuesday confirmed previous reports that the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, designed and built under a $4.2 billion contract from NASA, would miss its previous target launch date for an unpiloted test flight to the International Space Station in April. NASA and industry sources have said for months that an April launch date was not feasible, but NASA and Boeing had not officially published a revised schedule since early February.

The first Starliner test flight with astronauts on-board was previously scheduled for August. In Boeing’s schedule update released Tuesday, the company only said it expects the Crew Flight Test to occur “later this year,” but sources said the Starliner could fly with astronauts in November, at the earliest.

It appears that the fuel leak during a thruster test in June of last year has been the main cause of the delay.

None of this should effect SpaceX, which is primed to fly its mission during the summer. It does however cause more problems for Boeing, which is now also faced with pressure to finish NASA’s SLS rocket, bogged by years of delays and cost overruns.

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Boeing delays unmanned test flight of manned capsule

According to this story today, Boeing has delayed from April to August its first unmanned test flight of its Starliner manned capsule. It has also delayed the first manned flight from August to November.

NASA refused to comment other to say it would announce new schedules next week. The article also stated this:

The initial April launch was ahead of a United Launch Alliance mission for the Department of Defense in June from the Cape Canaveral launch pad in Florida, so Boeing would have needed to clear the launch pad by the first week in May, one of the sources said, describing the pressure not just on technical issues but also launch schedules at Cape Canaveral.

I suspect the technical issues are related to Boeing’s need to do more tests of the attitude thrusters on Starliner following the leak that occurred in a test last summer.

I also hope that next week’s announcement will reveal a firming up of SpaceX’s schedule. By now they should have a good idea of when they can do their launch abort test reusing the Dragon capsule used during their successful first unmanned test flight in March. That will in turn allow them to firm up the launch date for the first manned flight.

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Even as NASA announces schedule for SpaceX Dragon test flight, anti-American forces at NASA work to block that flight

There were two stories today impacting the future of American manned spaceflight. The first is positive, the second is downright hostile to that effort, and could literally be called treasonous by some.

The first story outlines in detail NASA’s press coverage and schedule leading up to and including the March 2nd SpaceX unmanned Dragon test flight. The key event will be the flight readiness review on February 22nd. NASA will televise a post review press conference no earlier that 6 pm (Eastern) that night. That review will determine whether the flight goes on March 2nd.

That NASA has made this announcement indicates that the agency is slowly being dragged, kicking and screaming, into allowing the test flight to finally happen, after years of bureaucratic delay.

The second story illustrates some of the ongoing kicking and screaming that is still going on inside NASA. It is also more disturbing. As far as I can tell from the story, some of the anti-American forces within NASA’s bureaucracy teamed up with Reuters today to publish this hit piece on the manned capsules of both SpaceX and Boeing.

Two people with direct knowledge of the program told Reuters that the space agency’s concerns go beyond the four items listed, and include a risk ledger that as of early February contained 30 to 35 lingering technical concerns each for SpaceX and Boeing. Reuters could not verify what all of the nearly three dozen items are. But the sources familiar with the matter said the companies must address “most” of those concerns before flying astronauts and, eventually, tourists to space. [emphasis mine]

Note that these are anonymous sources. Note that their attack, a bunch of unsubstantiated leaks, is directly aimed at discrediting the efforts of both companies. Note also that if they succeed the ultimate and only benefactor will be Russia, since NASA will then be forced to buy more Soyuz flights from them, on a rocket that has recently had a launch failure and in a capsule that someone in Russia actually sabotaged during assembly.

The last highlighted phrase, suggesting that NASA is going to use its power to block the ability of these free American companies from privately selling tourist flights on their capsules, is even more egregious. Once again, the only benefactors of this action would be the Russians, who will then be able to grab that tourist business.

It is for these reasons I call these sources, with the help of Reuters, anti-American.

Moreover, the issues that are outlined in this article are very dubious, to put it mildly. Suddenly, after years of reviews that never mentioned any issues with SpaceX’s parachutes as well as seventeen successful parachute test flights, NASA has suddenly deemed that the parachute design has “some design discrepancies.”

As for Boeing, the article mentions the valve leak failures during a engine test last year. In response Boeing has had the valves redesigned and reordered, but they still need further testing. While this is a legitimate issue, I suspect it is being used here as a sledge hammer against this American company, not as an issue that requires intelligent review.

Where is our “America-First” president in all this? Political forces in Washington and within NASA are actively working to block our country’s effort to fly in space, for the benefit of a foreign power. Why isn’t Trump doing something about this?

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Rather than use American manned capsules, NASA is considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights

Because of the delays imposed by its safety panel in the development of two American-made manned capsules, NASA is now considering buying more Soyuz astronaut flights from Russia.

Past experience has shown the difficulties associated with achieving first flights on time in the final year of development. Typically, problems will be discovered during these test flights. The consequences of no US crew on ISS warrant protection by acquiring additional seats. The absence of U.S. crewmembers at any point would diminish ISS operations to an inoperable state,” noted a procurement document published on February 13.

NASA is considering contracting with the State Space Corporation “Roscosmos” for these services on a sole source basis for two (2) Soyuz seats and associated services to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft vehicle. This transportation would be for one crewmember in the Fall of 2019 and one crewmember in the Spring of 2020.

Remind me again: What country does NASA work for? From this I think it is Russia, not the United States. The agency has no problem putting its astronauts on a Soyuz rocket, even though Russia has had chronic quality control problems that not only caused a Soyuz launch abort last year but also had someone drill a hole in a manned capsule, an act of sabotage that Russia has still not explained or solved.

Meanwhile, it slow-walks and delays in any manner it can the manned efforts of two American companies, so that it is forced to use Russian rockets. This is unconscionable. Where is Trump, the “America-First” guy? Why isn’t he stepping in and putting an end to this political gamesmanship that clearly favors a foreign power over American companies?

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NASA pulls astronaut for medical reasons from Boeing manned flight

NASA has switched one member of the planned astronaut crew for the first manned Boeing Starliner mission presently scheduled in August because of medical reasons.

Eric Boe, one of three astronauts assigned to the first piloted test flight of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner commercial crew ship later this year has been removed from the mission due to unspecified medical issues, NASA announced Tuesday. He will be replaced by veteran astronaut Mike Fincke.

Boe will take over Fincke’s role as assistant to the chief for commercial crew operations in the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center. In keeping with long-standing NASA policy regarding medical privacy, no details about the reason for Boe’s reassignment were provided.

The article notes that this is only the sixth time in the entire history of American manned space that such a switch was necessary. I hope Boe’s medical issue is not serious, and wish him well with the hope he will be flying on another Boeing or SpaceX flight quite soon.

Though not directly related to this story, to my mind the real question remains: Will NASA’s bureaucracy let this flight happen in 2019? I think it will have no choice, but it will be dragged kicking and screaming to the launchpad.

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Atlas 5 upper stage for first unmanned Starliner launch arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The Centaur upper stage to the ULA Atlas 5 rocket that will launch Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first unmanned test flight has arrived in Florida.

According to present schedules, that flight is set for no earlier than March. This delivery makes that schedule more likely.

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Commercial crew test flights delayed again

NASA today released an updated schedule for the Dragon and Starliner test flights, indicating the first Dragon flight has been pushed to January 2019.

  • SpaceX Demo-1 uncrewed flight test: January 2019 (delayed from November 2018)
  • Boeing uncrewed Orbital Flight Test: March 2019 (delayed from late 2018/early 2019)
  • SpaceX Demo-2 crewed flight test: June 2019 (delayed from April 2019)
  • Boeing Crew Flight Test: August 2019 (nominally still in mid-2019 as earlier stated)

It appears from the article that SpaceX was prepared to fly its first flight in December, meaning only a one month delay, but scheduling conflicts at ISS forced them to push it to January.

With the Boeing flights, the scheduling has less to do with delays and more do to do with setting more precise launch dates.

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Update on SpaceX and Boeing’s private commercial crew capsules

Link here. The key piece of news is that both companies now believe they meet NASA’s safety requirements.

[D]uring a panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here Sept. 18, executives of the two companies said they now believed their vehicles met that and related safety requirements.

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for the commercial crew program at Boeing, said the company was assessing three separate requirements, including the overall loss of crew as well as ascent and entry risks and loss of mission. “Our teams have been working that for a number of years,” he said, noting those analyses have driven changes to the vehicle design, such as increased micrometeoroid and orbital debris protection. “Where we are now is that our analysis shows we can exceed the NASA requirements for all three of those criteria,” he said.

Benjamin Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said his company was in a similar situation. “We’re looking right now to be meeting the requirements,” he said.

Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, didn’t confirm that the companies have, in fact, met those safety requirements. “We’re learning from a NASA perspective about how to understand the assessments that we’re getting from each of the contractors and how to apply it,” she said. “We at the NASA team are assessing the modeling that each of the providers has done.”

It should be understood that the requirements being discussed here really have nothing to do with actual engineering, but are based on a statistical analysis that estimates the risk to any passenger. In other words, it is a pure guess, and can be manipulated any way anyone wants. This is why NASA’s manager above is so vague. What she is really saying is that NASA is slowly being forced to accept the analysis of the contractors.

The article at the link also details the present schedule, which appears mostly unchanged (though Musk indicated there might be a slight delay in Dragon during his BFR presentation earlier this week), and the efforts by both companies to make their capsules reusable.

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Dragon/Starliner schedules firming up

At a meeting at NASA this week a status update of SpaceX’s manned Dragon and Boeing’s manned Starliner capsules indicated that their proposed flight schedules, with the first manned flights occurring next year, are increasingly firm.

Overall, the updates were quite positive with most of the flight hardware nearing completion. The two companies must each execute two test flights to the International Space Station (ISS) in order to be certified to perform operational crew rotation missions.

On the SpaceX side, the company will first execute an uncrewed test flight of the Crew Dragon spacecraft called Demonstration Mission 1 (DM-1) – currently scheduled for this coming November. It will then be followed by a crewed test flight designated Demonstration Mission 2 (DM-2). In between the two missions, SpaceX will also execute an in-flight abort test.

In terms of Boeing, they will perform an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) with the CST-100 Starliner followed by a Crewed Flight Test (CFT). A pad abort test will be also conducted between the two missions.

While Boeing’s schedule for these flights is somewhat uncertain as they investigate the recent failure of several valves to close during an engine test, SpaceX’s schedule has become very solid. Assuming nothing goes wrong on the unmanned test flight in November and the in-flight abort test, they will fly humans in April, 2019.

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Flying Boeing’s Starliner capsule

Link here. The article provides some nice details about the way the spacecraft will operate (mostly by computer), with the astronauts monitoring and capable of taking over at any point.

Unlike Dragon, the control panel has no touchscreens. According to astronaut Chris Ferguson, the design was “borrowed a little bit from Orion, and it’s kind of the way some of the 5th generation military planes interact with pilots.” Not as fancy, but maybe more practical. I still have my doubts about the ability of astronauts to accurately press a touchscreen during the vibrations of launch.

There is something else, however, about this article that bugs me. It reads too much like an SLS update, filled with glowing reports that, in the case of SLS, are designed to disguise a program that is not going to meet its schedule. This is pure speculation based on nothing but instinct, but it is an impression I have and do not like.

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NASA announces crews for first commercial manned launches

NASA has announced the crews for the first commercial manned launches.

Boeing’s crew flight test aboard its Starliner spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in mid-2019, will have Eric Boe, Chris Ferguson and Nicole Mann on board. Boeing’s first post-certification mission will have Josh Cassada and Suni Williams aboard.

SpaceX’s demo mission 2 aboard its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which is targeted to launch in April 2019, will have Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard. The first post-certification mission will be crewed by Victor Glover and Mike Hopkins.

These crews cover the first two manned missions for each spacecraft.

Hat tip Kirk Hilliard.

More information here.

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New launch dates for commercial crew posted by NASA

NASA has now released an updated schedule for the first test flights of Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon manned capsules:

In chronological order:

SpaceX Demo-1 (uncrewed): November 2018
Boeing Orbital Flight Test (uncrewed): late 2018 / early 2019
SpaceX Demo-2 (crewed): April 2019
Boeing Crew Flight Test (crewed): mid-2019

Note once again that this schedule bears no resemblance to the pessimistic schedule put forth by the GAO. That schedule indicated that significant delays could be expected because of NASA’s heavy paperwork requirements.

I fully expect that political needs will force that paperwork to be done much faster than the GAO, or NASA, expects, or even wants. And the increased speed will have little to do with reducing safety.

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Boeing adjusts Starliner launch schedule after fuel leak during test

Capitalism in space: Yesterday Boeing pushed back its Starliner launch schedule as a result of the fuel leak problem that had occurred during an engine test of the capsule last week.

They now plan the first unmanned test flight around the end of this year, with the first manned flight in the middle of 2019.

As for the fuel leak,

several abort engine valves failed to close properly, causing a leak of toxic fuels. The test article was not damaged and no one was hurt, but the incident required an investigation with support from NASA.

Other reports say that 4 of 8 valves failed to close. There is no explanation about why this happened, but I find it a very strange technical failure. Building valves for spacecraft is not cutting edge design, or I wouldn’t think so.

Tomorrow NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is going to make an announcement with some official launch dates for both Boeing and SpaceX. We shall see if SpaceX’s schedule gets pushed back as well.

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NASA safety panel reviews commercial crew, tries to justify its paperwork demands

Link here. The article describes the results from the quarterly meeting of NASA’s safety panel, which occurred last week, including its concerns about the recent test problems during a launch abort test of Boeing’s Starliner capsule. It also describes the panel’s general satisfaction at the status of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

The article however ends with a long screed by one panel member, explaining that the heavy paperwork requirements they are imposing on the two companies is not really paperwork.

“It needs to be noted by everyone, and we’re especially interested in making sure that all of the external stakeholders realize this, that while the concluding process of certification has sometimes been described as a paper process, that is really just a shorthand clarification and in reality it could not be further from the truth,” noted Dr. McErlean.

In reality, the process is as follows. “In a certified design, the design agent – the contractor or partner in this case – performs the design and in the certification plan, the design agent and the certification agency (NASA) agree on the submittal of certification evidence.

“This could be measurements, it can be test data, it can be analysis, but it almost always involves the submittal of detailed technical data, not simply paper descriptions or forms. Sometimes it involves witness testing and sometimes it involves physical inspection. But it almost always wraps around important technical submittals.

Can I translate? The safety panel requires a lot of testing so that a lot of paperwork can be filled out. And while much of this testing is likely to help make the capsule’s safer, most of it seems to me to be make-work, and designed to justify the existence of NASA and its safety panel.

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NASA rubberstamps Russian engines in Atlas 5 for manned flights

Surprise surprise! NASA has certified the Russian engines used in the Atlas 5 as safe for manned flights.

NASA had been claiming that, because it cannot observe every detail in how Russia builds the engines, it cannot certify them as safe for manned flight. This is, and has been, crap. The Atlas 5, with this engine, has been one of the most reliable rockets ever built.

In truth, what NASA’s bureaucracy was really doing was using these Russian engines as a wedge to slow down Boeing’s first manned flight, mainly because the commercial crew program is threatening NASA past monopoly on U.S. manned flight. Once privately built rockets and manned spacecraft fly, people are suddenly going to realize we don’t really need NASA.

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