Boeing’s first CST-100 Starliner has come together in an old space shuttle orbiter processing hangar at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Known as a pathfinder test article, the vehicle will be used to certify the Starliner’s design and prove the manufacturing methods and overall ability of the spacecraft to handle the demands of spaceflight before putting astronauts onboard for flights to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in the next couple years.
The capsule, which Boeing is developing in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, now sits in one piece in Boeing’s Starliner Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF), after engineers bolted together the upper and lower domes of the vehicle on May 2. The last spacecraft to undergo processing there was Space Shuttle Discovery, which was moved out following its retirement to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center, near Washington, D.C., in 2012.
Boeing, in partnership with Space Florida, has had a lease on the former shuttle hangar for some time, modernizing the facility to provide an environment for efficient production, testing, and operations of multiple Starliners similar to Boeing’s satellite, space launch vehicle, and commercial airplane production programs.
“With a 50,000 square foot processing facility it’s going to allow us to process up to six CST-100’s at a time,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Programs.
The Starliner structural test article in C3PF will soon go through final outfitting before it is moved to Huntington Beach, Calif., where it will be subjected to loads and separation testing. The tests must bear out that the capsules can handle the conditions of space as well as engine firings and the pressure of launch, ascent, and reentry.
“In simple terms, it will be shaked, baked and tested to the extreme,” said Boeing in a press release May 11.
From there, Boeing expects to apply those lessons to the first flight test models of the Starliner, parts of which are already in the manufacturing flow in Florida.
“Our team is initiating qualification testing on dozens of components and preparing to assemble flight hardware,” said Mulholland. “These are the first steps in an incredibly exciting, important and challenging year.”
Starliner will be capable of ferrying a crew of up to seven astronauts to and from the ISS and other low-Earth orbit destinations. NASA only requires seating for four, but in a previous interview with AmericaSpace, Chris Ferguson, a veteran astronaut and Director of Crew and Mission Operations for Boeing, said he expects crews of five to fly.
The vehicle will launch from nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas-V rocket, just a few miles from Boeing’s C3PF, and will cruise autonomously on a six to eight hour trip to the $100-billion orbiting ISS. The astronauts will not need to fly the vehicle at all, and will literally be along for the ride in all aspects of the flight. They will, however, be able to take manual control of the CST-100 at any time, just in case.
The first crewed flight was expected to take place late next year. Earlier this week, however, Leanne Caret, a top executive at Boeing, confirmed with investors that the first crewed Starliner flight won’t occur until 2018. The delay, however, isn’t much of a shocker, considering Boeing was aiming for a December 2017 first crewed flight.
In comments to Alan Boyle at GeekWire, Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan advised that the slip is blamed on issues related to Starliner’s mass and aeroacoustic issues related to integration with its ULA Atlas-V rocket, as well as additional work required of developers due to NASA software updates for the spacecraft.
The other company aiming to fly astronauts to and from the ISS for NASA, SpaceX, isn’t seriously expected to make any crewed Dragon flight to the ISS until 2018 either, although they won’t yet say so, and instead are officially sticking to their 2017 timetable, for now.
That said, consider the old saying “money talks.” Boeing received a $4.2 billion NASA crew contract, while SpaceX received $2.6 billion. Not only that, but Boeing has two crew orders already from NASA, and SpaceX so far has one.
NASA has emphasized previously that the orders do not necessarily imply that Starliner will fly ahead of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, and note instead that “determination of which company will fly its mission to the station first will be made at a later time.”
But if SpaceX can stay on their current schedule, they would be ready with Crew Dragon before CST-100 Starliner. History, however, shows that delays are plenty in the new commercial era of U.S. spaceflight, and so 2017 looks more and more like a test year for both companies, and 2018 the year they both return human spaceflight to American soil.
Besides work moving forward putting together Starliners, NASA Commercial Crew astronauts Suni Williams and Eric Boe put a pair of Boeing Crew Part-Task Trainers through a host of mission paces last month as well, evaluating the systems that they and other astronauts will use to train for every detail and situation that could arise during a CST-100 Starliner mission. The trainers will be shipped to the Jake Garn Training Facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston later this year to be joined by a full-size Starliner simulator that replicates the entire spacecraft.