Spaceflight Insider

Starliner moves closer to crucial pad abort test

Boeing CST-100 Starliner

Spacecraft 1 of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is lowered onto a work stand. Photo Credit: NASA

The last major hardware component of Boeing’s second CST-100 Starliner—the truncated cone of the upper dome—recently arrived at one of the re-purposed Orbiter Processing Facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, joining the lower dome and docking hatch, both of which arrived this past May.

The three components will be processed and assembled in Boeing’s facility in preparation for the Starliner‘s pad abort test, and later its maiden test flight, both tentatively scheduled for sometime in late 2017, followed by the first crewed flight to the International Space Station (ISS) in early 2018.

lower dome arrival

The lower half of Spacecraft 1 as it arrived in Florida in May. Photo Credit: Boeing

The upper and lower domes are machined from space-grade aluminum and have a distinctive honeycomb pattern. With Starliner being designed with a 10-mission lifespan, the honeycomb pattern allows for a significant weight reduction while maintaining structural rigidity necessary for the rigors experienced through a nominal flight, as well as for potential abort scenarios.

The three major components will each be independently outfitted with wiring, avionics, electronics, and tubing before being joined into a single unit—currently designated by Boeing as “Spacecraft 1”. This modular approach to spacecraft construction will streamline component installation, allowing easy access to the various sub-assemblies prior to bolting together the upper and lower domes.

After joining, other major systems, along with thermal protection and the base heat shield, will be installed on the spacecraft, which will later be mated to the service module.

Though this craft is being designated Spacecraft 1, it will actually be the second Starliner assembled at KSC. The first unit—the structural test article—will be used for ground-based tests, such as thermal, vacuum, loading tests, etc., with the resulting data being compared to the requirements set forth by NASA under the Commercial Crew Program.

Spacecraft 1, however, will be slated for the critical pad abort test to ensure the escape system will be able separate the craft and crew from the launch vehicle should an emergency arise. This test should occur before the maiden, uncrewed, flight of the Starliner atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket in late 2017. The launch escape system will be housed in the vehicle’s service module, rather than in a separate tower, as has been commonplace on every U.S. spacecraft save for the Gemini capsule and the Space Shuttle.

Boeing, along with SpaceX, is vying to the be the first company to resume launching astronauts to the ISS from U.S. soil after years of relying on Russia and their Soyuz craft to fill in the gap following the Space Shuttle’s retirement in 2011. Since then, all astronauts and cosmonauts have been launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

NASA is currently paying Russia more than $70 million per seat to fly astronauts to the orbiting outpost. Under the Commercial Crew Program with Boeing and SpaceX, those per-seat costs should see a significant reduction, along with the logistics associated with the Russian launches.

Compared to the Soyuz, the Starliner is a relatively spacious spacecraft. Able to accommodate up to seven astronauts, the spacecraft will be replete with a modern cockpit and automated controls. Moreover, Boeing’s craft, along with SpaceX’s Dragon, will feature an automated docking system—a first for an American spacecraft. However, the astronauts will not simply be passengers along for the ride. Starliner‘s pilot will have the ability to take manual control of the spacecraft should the need arise.

Along with further testing of the Starliner, Boeing, with launch partner ULA, looks to complete the Crew Access Tower, currently under construction at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Though the main structure is complete, it’s awaiting installation of the Crew Access Arm, which should occur later this year.

Video courtesy of NASA Kennedy


Curt Godwin has been a fan of space exploration for as long as he can remember, keeping his eyes to the skies from an early age. Initially majoring in Nuclear Engineering, Curt later decided that computers would be a more interesting - and safer - career field. He's worked in education technology for more than 20 years, and has been published in industry and peer journals, and is a respected authority on wireless network engineering. Throughout this period of his life, he maintained his love for all things space and has written about his experiences at a variety of NASA events, both on his personal blog and as a freelance media representative.

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