Spaceflight Insider

Boeing completes test of hyper-critical pad abort system

On Nov. 4, 2019 Boeing and NASA conducted a Pad Abort Test of a model of Boeing's Starliner spacecraft. The test was carried out at Launch Complex 32 located in White Sands, New Mexico. Photo Credit: NASA

On Nov. 4, 2019 Boeing and NASA conducted a Pad Abort Test of a model of Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft. The test was carried out at Launch Complex 32 located in White Sands, New Mexico. Photo Credit: NASA

With SpaceX steamrolling ahead toward achieving the goal of sending U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station, Boeing took a step of its own today toward accomplishing the same feat.

Boeing’s Starliner, one of two American commercial spacecraft intended to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), achieved a critical safety milestone earlier today Nov. 4, 2019, with a successful end-to-end test of its abort system.  The test was designed to verify that each of Starliner’s four abort systems will function not only separately, but in concert, to protect astronauts by carrying them safely away from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency prior to liftoff.

“The test team and spacecraft performed flawlessly,” said Starliner Program Manager John Mulholland. “Emergency scenario testing is very complex, and today our team validated that the spacecraft will keep our crew safe in the unlikely event of an abort.”

Boeing CST-100 Starliner in orbit above the International Space Station image Credit James Vaughan SpaceFlight Insider

While once considered to be in the lead in terms of conducting the first test flights, Boeing has slipped behind SpaceX – by at least two months. Image Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider

Though the actual launch of Starliner will take place aboard an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), this today’s test took place at another location, Launch Complex 32 at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  The entire test only took about 95 seconds, and actually propelled Starliner to an altitude of approximately 4,500 feet (about twice the height of the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa in Dubai).

“We’ve tested all these systems individually, so we know the propulsion system fires at the intended levels, and we know the parachutes can support the vehicle and safely slow it down, but the real test is making sure those systems can perform together. That’s when you know these systems are ready to fly people,” said Boeing’s Pad Abort Test Flight Director Alicia Evans.

Aerojet Rocketdyne developed and tested the abort motors for the CST-100 spacecraft.
Photo Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne

During the roughly two-minute long test, Starliner’s four launch abort engines, and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters simultaneously ignited to rapidly push the spacecraft away from the test stand. Five seconds into flight, the abort engines shut off as planned, transferring steering to the control thrusters for the next five seconds.

A pitcharound maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing, and two of three of 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.

“Tests like this one are crucial to help us make sure the systems are as safe as possible,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager. “We are thrilled with the preliminary results, and now we have the job of really digging into the data and analyzing whether everything worked as we expected.”

Added John Mulholland, Vice President and Program Manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program, “Emergency scenario testing is very complex, and today our team validated that the spacecraft will keep our crew safe in the unlikely event of an abort. “Our teams across the program have made remarkable progress to get us to this point, and we are fully focused on the next challenge—Starliner’s uncrewed flight to demonstrate Boeing’s capability to safely fly crew to and from the space station.” 

That uncrewed flight, to be conducted by United Launch Alliance and called the Orbital Flight Test, is targeted for about a month and a half from now, on or about Dec. 17, at CCAFS. 

SpaceX is the other private commercial company developing a spacecraft to transport astronauts from American soil to the ISS.  They successfully completed an uncrewed mission, called Demo-1, of their Crew Dragon spacecraft to the ISS in March 2019. However, SpaceX experienced a setback about a month later in an evaluation the static fire engine capabilities of their own In-Flight Abort System; the test experienced an anomoly that destroyed the spacecraft on a test stand at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, CCAFS.  Undeterred, SpaceX has subsequently conducted and successfully completed a number of other critical safety milestones, including an astronaut recovery exercise (August 13, 2019), and a formal verification of the emergency escape (egress) system (September 18, 2019) at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. 

Neither Boeing nor SpaceX  have announced formal target dates for the much-anticipated launch of their respective spacecraft … with astronauts aboard.

Video courtesy of NASA




Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.

Reader Comments

I would not say that a parachute failing to deploy would constitute a “flawless” test…

Well, they were testing the abort system not the landing system so yes test ok.

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