Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule which recently flew the Orbital Flight Test mission for NASA is now back at its homeport at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Boeing is now putting the spacecraft through an extensive post-flight analysis and processing.
The company invited AmericaSpace and other media to visit the capsule and speak with program managers on Jan 15, outlining some of the work ahead as they and NASA work together to inspect and process the vehicle, mine data and determine the next step towards crewed flight.
Following a flawless sunrise launch from Cape Canaveral on Dec 20, 2019, the capsule suffered an anomaly due to a mission elapsed timer using an unexpected timeline, which confused Starliner and caused it to use more fuel than needed, which delaying orbital insertion thruster firings. The issue forced Boeing to abort the International Space Station (ISS), and instead put Starliner in an unplanned stable orbit to save other critical mission test objectives, including the most critical: de-orbit, re-entry and landing at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
According to Boeing, the spacecraft remained healthy over the course of its mission, noting that its power system operated exceptionally, solar arrays operated at above predicted efficiency, and all separation events were nominal, including ascent cover jettison, aeroskirt jettison and separation from ULA’s Atlas V rocket.
NASA noted following the launch that ISS rendezvous and docking is not a mandatory requirement for crew certification:
“The uncrewed flight test was proposed by Boeing as a way to meet NASA’s mission and safety requirements for certification and as a way to validate that the system can protect astronauts in space before flying crew. The uncrewed mission, including docking to the space station, became a part of the company’s contract with NASA. Although docking was planned, it may not have to be accomplished prior to the crew demonstration. Boeing would need NASA’s approval to proceed with a flight test with astronauts onboard.”
NASA also added that had crew been onboard they not only would have been fine, but they would have taken manual control and likely overcame the automated timing problem. The astronauts themselves too shed light on that fact, showing confidence in the design and training.
After traveling cross-country atop a flatbed truck across 6 states, the spacecraft arrived back at KSC on Jan 8, where it is now undergoing post-flight processing as technicians thoroughly inspect the spacecraft, examine key systems and mine data.
According to Boeing, the post-flight processing includes:
- Thorough external inspection
- Hatch opening and visual verification the seal is in good shape and will keep pressure integrity and people safe as the telemetry data indicates
- Interior inspection and verification the capsule is as clean as the telemetry data would indicate
- Removal of cover panels and some key components across systems including avionics, propulsion and life support, detailed inspection and verification of those key components after first flight
- Detailed inspection of chutes, rigging and airbags with emphasis on unexpected chafing and wear-and-tear
- Assessment of how heat loading during ascent and entry affected docking system and capsule sidewalls, will compare results against pre-flight thermal models
- Transition to standard post-flight refurbishment and pre-flight testing
It is still unclear whether NASA will require Boeing to fly another un-crewed orbital flight test to the ISS. Engineers and analysts are working on compiling and understanding all the data from the OFT, and together with NASA will review it all and decide based on what is learned.
“An independent Boeing-NASA team has been formed and are reviewing the software anomaly to determine root cause and recommend corrective actions”, says Boeing. “Additionally, individual teams are evaluating data and conducting comprehensive system-by-system reviews as part of the normal post-flight test process. Boeing teams now have access to and are currently compiling results from the last of the data recorded during flight.”
“The independent team will inform NASA and Boeing on the root cause of the mission elapsed timer anomaly and any other software issues and provide corrective actions needed before flying crew to the International Space Station,” added NASA. “The team will review the primary anomalies experienced during the Dec. 2019 flight test, any potential contributing factors and provide recommendations to ensure a robust design for future missions. Once underway, the investigation is targeted to last about two months before the team delivers its final assessment.”
“In parallel, NASA is evaluating the data received during the mission to determine if another uncrewed demonstration is required. NASA’s approach will be to determine if NASA and Boeing received enough data to validate the system’s overall performance, including launch, on-orbit operations, guidance, navigation and control, docking/undocking to the space station, reentry and landing. Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system’s full capabilities.
At the same time, technicians are continuing to prepare another Starliner crew capsule and service module for the next flight, which is scheduled to be the Crew Flight Test with Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson and NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke. That vehicle is currently in the final assembly and processing phases in Boeing’s processing facility at KSC.
Once Boeing closes out work on the OFT mission data, techs will begin preparing it for its next mission, the first true operational contracted Post-Certification Mission-1 (PCM-1) for NASA, which will be crewed by astronauts Suni Williams and Josh Cassada to the ISS for a six-month tour. Williams also named her ship too, christening it the ‘Calypso’ after landing in NM following OFT.
As for Rosie and Snoopy, they did very well on their mission: