NASA and Boeing add option for extended Starliner Crew Flight Test
With the timeline for the first operational human flights for the Commercial Crew Program gradually slipping to the right and into 2019, Boeing last year proposed adding a third crew member to the first Crew Flight Test of the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station, NASA recently announced.
Additionally, NASA said the updated Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract gives Boeing the flexibility to increase the duration of the crewed flight from two weeks to up to six months—the duration of a long-duration stay at the ISS.
In a NASA news release, the agency said it is looking at the exact details of how to best take advantage of the modified contract, but no official changes to the timeline has occurred as of yet. A longer mission and a third crew member would allow the space agency to fly additional microgravity research, maintenance and other activities while docked to the outpost.
“This contract modification provides NASA with additional schedule margin if needed,” said William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in the news release. “We appreciate Boeing’s willingness to evolve its flight to ensure we have continued access to space for our astronauts. Commercial space transportation to low-Earth orbit from U.S. soil is critical for the agency and the nation.”
Boeing and SpaceX are NASA’s two Commercial Crew Program partners. As of right now, both are expected to conduct unpiloted flight tests on their respective Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft no earlier than late Summer 2018 with human test flight flights occurring no earlier than late-2018 or early 2019. Starliner will fly atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V N22 (meaning it has no payload fairing, two strap-on solid rocket boosters and a dual-engine Centaur upper stage) from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41, while Crew Dragon will fly atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A.
NASA said the current commercial crew schedule has about six months of margin built in to begin regular, post-certification crew rotation missions to the ISS before the final contracted flight on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft end in the fall of 2019.
Since the end of the Space Shuttle program, NASA astronauts and those of its international partners have launched from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to the ISS aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft—at a cost of some $70 million or more per seat. Additionally, some seats have been given to NASA by Boeing after the company won them in a legal dispute with RSC Energia, which manufactures the spacecraft.
The Commercial Crew Program, building on the success of NASA’s commercial cargo program, has been working to end the gap in the United States’ domestic access to space, which will end up being more than seven years by the time the first human flights occur. But, as with any major spaceflight program, delays have been incurred for various reasons ranging from the technical to the financial.
If NASA opts to increase the crew size and mission length of Boeing’s Crew Flight Test, the agency said it wouldn’t be the first time it has “expanded the scope of test flights.”
In 2012, when SpaceX was still certifying its Dragon cargo ship for supply runs to the ISS, NASA opted to carry cargo with the spacecraft on its first demonstration flight to berth with the outpost. This allowed additional food and equipment to be sent to the station, which was needed after the end of the Space Shuttle program, the agency said.
“Turning a test flight into more of an operational mission needs careful review by the technical community,” Gerstenmaier said. “For example, the spacecraft capability to support the additional time still needs to be reviewed. Modifying the contract now allows NASA and Boeing an opportunity to tailor the duration to balance the mission needs with vehicle and crew capabilities.”
According to NASA, the agency has assessed multiple scenarios to ensure continued U.S. access to the ISS and it is working closely with its commercial partners to prepare for potential schedule adjustments. In addition to the unpiloted test flights, SpaceX plans to perform an in-flight abort test and Boeing still needs to conduct a pad abort test.
“Our partners have made significant progress on the development of their spacecraft, launch vehicle, and ground systems,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Their rigorous testing and analysis are verifying each system performs and reacts as planned as they prepare to safely carry our astronauts to and from the station.”
NASA has not announced a similar contract modification for SpaceX and its Crew Dragon. It is unclear if the Hawthorne, California-based company has been provided the same opportunity.
Regardless, should Boeing send its Starliner spacecraft to the ISS for six months, there might not be an available docking port for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for that duration.
There is currently only one International Docking Adapter port active on the outpost, located on the forward end of the station’s Harmony module. According to Deputy Manager Joel Montalbano during the CRS-14 post-launch press briefing, the second docking adapter is manifested to be launched during SpaceX’s CRS-18 cargo flight. That isn’t expected to occur mid-2019. Once sent tot he ISS, it will be attached to a Pressurized Mating adapter located on the space-facing port of Harmony.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.