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Boeing employs test dummies on Starliner safety trials

Engineers working with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner test the spacecraft’s seat design in Mesa, Arizona.

Engineers working with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner test the spacecraft’s seat design in Mesa, Arizona, focusing on how the spacecraft seats would protect an astronaut’s head, neck, and spine during the 240-mile descent from the International Space Station. (Click for full view) Photo & Caption Credit: Boeing

Boeing is deep into the development of its astronaut crew capsule, known as the CST-100 Starliner, for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Much like the automotive industry, the aerospace giant is using test dummies to prepare the spacecraft to carry astronauts. 

In a lab, Boeing has conducted several tests of the Starliner’s newly designed seats. This including a series of 30 drops at varying heights, angles, velocities, and seat orientations to best simulate real-world conditions. Honeycomb-like panels simulated the airbags during these repetitive drop tests and only a frame structure surrounded the seat instead of an actual capsule test article.

Engineers working with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner test the spacecraft’s seat design in Mesa, Arizona.

Photo Credit: Boeing

In addition to sensitive instrumentation embedded within the test dummies, high-speed cameras also provided invaluable records of anatomical movement during each impact.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program allocates funding for Commercial Crew support and hardware development allowing Boeing to consider engineering designs that haven’t been tackled domestically since the Apollo program of the 1960s and early 1970s. A large design component that Boeing’s engineers have to be mindful of is the strict crew safety guidelines provided by NASA. This includes re-entry, descent, and landing.

One of the best tools utilized in aerospace engineering involves data streams collected via anatomically correct test dummies subjected to simulated and real-world testing. The body weight, mass, and dimensions of these engineering mannequin-like tools are very close to those of actual astronauts. This allows for careful analysis of the spacecraft’s seat design.

These tests are thorough and include male and female versions to ensure the accuracy of results. As they are known more commonly as “crash test dummies”, these test articles are used to study the landing impact speeds and abrupt “velocity cancellations” to ensure that proper neck and spine support is provided by the capsule’s design. It is hoped that these tests will reduce the risk of injury to Starliner crews to acceptable levels.

As was the case for crews on the Apollo Command Module, protection from the blistering temperatures of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere is provided by Starliner’s heat shield. After the capsule has carried astronauts through Earth’s upper atmosphere, three main parachutes are then deployed to further reduce velocity during descent and allow for a gradual deceleration. Finally, after the heat shield is jettisoned, airbags will be deployed beneath capsule as it approaches the Earth’s surface for a ground landing impact.

Each of the above-mentioned processes will place forces on the crew with the landing being the most intense. Ultimately, in the case of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner, an airbag deployment beneath the capsule’s heat-shield – which is released at an altitude of 5,000 feet (1,520 meters) during descent – is designed to take the brunt of the landing forces.

Seat designs play a critical role for how well the crew members will tolerate a landing on Terra firma concluding their 240-mile fall. Absorption of the kinetic energy into the airbags and flight structure removes the potential energy from assaulting their fragile bodies. In real flights, it is common for the astronauts to endure forces similar to small automobile crashes. Test dummies allow for data collection without sacrificing anyone’s safety.

Test dummies have been utilized by engineers for decades. In the 1940s, before the implementation of crash dummies, various organizations were using cadavers, chimpanzees, hogs, and other animals for post-crash analysis. Sierra Sam was the first crash dummy utilized by the Air Force in ejection seat testing.

Col. John Stapp, an Air Force flight surgeon, measured some automobile crash forces in the 1950s to be 28 G’s (28 times the force of gravity). This was discovered after he had realized that he was losing pilots in automobile accidents far more frequently than plane mishaps. Early on, crash dummies that were used to determine the ferocity of auto accidents often had counterpart human “guinea pigs” who volunteered to put their bodies through collisions for analysis.

The 29,000-pound (13,000-kilogram) CST-100 Starliner is currently scheduled to conduct its first flight with a crew in August 2018. Ultimately, it is expected that the spacecraft, which has space for up to seven people, will nominally transport four American astronauts with cargo to the International Space Station from U.S. soil – a feat that hasn’t occurred since the retirement of NASA’s fleet of Space Shuttle orbiters in 2011.

In parallel with Boeing’s CCP efforts, SpaceX is developing its Crew Dragon capsule while NASA works to regain the ability to send crews far beyond the orbit of Earth with the space agency’s Orion spacecraft. It is hoped that this two-pronged approach will allow NASA to maintain its low-Earth orbit operations while pushing further out into the Solar System.

Video courtesy of Boeing



Jerome Strach has worked within the Silicon Valley community for 20 years including software entertainment and film. Along with experience in software engineering, quality assurance, and middle management, he has long been a fan of aerospace and entities within that industry. A voracious reader, a model builder, and student of photography and flight training, most of his spare time can be found focused on launch events and technology advancements including custom mobile app development. Best memory as a child is building and flying Estes rockets with my father. @Romn8tr

Reader Comments

Iwould recommend the seat unload the infectable cushion.

Thank God they are still using dummies. Hopefully Boeing’s contract will be cancelled before actual humans are placed at risk again on a Boeing space flight. Boeing incompetence/corruption I believe was responsible for both Space Shuttle disasters. Give the contract to SpaceX or anyone but Boeing instead.

As anyone can see ample evidence of on my website, Boeing already feloniously places at risk millions of passengers and crews each day on it’s largely uninspected airplanes in service. At least 750 people have died because of this fraud. The actual number is likely in the thousands, as many crashes are not traced to the most probable cause.

Write your Senators and Representatives. Call for them to cancel this contract and any other manned aerospace vehicle contracts our government has with Boeing, including all Boeing manned vehicle DOD contracts. Boeing’s decades long inspection/rollerstamping fraud endangering untold lives every day needs to stop.

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