Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is ready to launch again, following a busy weekend where crews transported it from a the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at neighboring Kennedy Space Center to Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility (VIF), where the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket tasked with launching the capsule on its second Orbital Flight Test has been waiting.
“Seeing the Starliner atop the Atlas V just days away from launch is symbolic of how proud our team feels about executing this mission,” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing Commercial Crew Program. “OFT-2 is a critical milestone on our path to crewed flights, and we’re all ready to see our hard work come to life with a successful mission from beginning to end.”
Launch is currently targeted for 2:53 p.m. on Friday, July 30, pending a Flight Readiness Review on July 22 by mission leadership at NASA, Boeing and ULA, and pending an upcoming integrated systems test, which is a end-to-end electrical check of the 172-foot-tall Atlas V and Starliner stack. The mission will also mark ULA’s 145th flight, aiming for liftoff at the precise moment the ISS’s orbital plane goes over Cape Canaveral.
Departing Boeing’s processing facility early on July 17, the spacecraft was transported via ULA’s motorized payload transporter, adapted to carry Starliner, moving at a blazing speed of 5 mph across 10 miles until arriving at the VIF. Crews with ULA then attached a four-point lifting sling, called a Handling Fixture Hoist Tool, and raised the spacecraft up the 30-story VIF with an overhead crane to carefully mate the capsule atop the Atlas V rocket.
The rocket itself, designated AV-082, is uniquely configured to launch Starliner too, as it is only the second flight of Atlas V’s N22 variant featuring two solid rocket boosters (SRBs), two RL10 engines on the Centaur upper stage and a Launch Vehicle Adapter that connects Starliner to Atlas. According to ULA, the configuration is tailored for the necessary performance to deliver Starliner to the desired trajectory to each the ISS.
The mission comes following a questionable first Orbital Flight Test in 2019, where the spacecraft suffered a software timing anomaly shortly after launch which prevented it from ever reaching the ISS. And while they did save the spacecraft and were able to conduct various other test objectives, and brought the spacecraft back to Earth safely, the bottom line is they still have yet to prove it can safely rendezvous with the ISS, which is the whole reason NASA awarded them a multi-billion dollar contract years ago along with SpaceX, who has now been flying crews on their Dragon spacecraft for over a year (and with a smaller dollar amount contract).
Despite an incomplete OFT-1 mission, Starliner successfully demonstrated its propulsion systems, its communications systems, its Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC), its Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) and—through a series of in-flight extension/retraction tests—its NASA Docking System (NDS).
And although NASA noted that an actual ISS docking was not a mandatory requirement to “crew-certify” Starliner, and pointed out that had a crew been aboard OFT-1 they could have taken manual control and likely overcome the automated timing problem, it became increasingly likely as 2020 dawned that another uncrewed flight would need to take place.
A High Visibility Close Call (HVCC) Review, led by NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Kathy Lueders and Commercial Crew Program Manager Steve Stich, revealed a worrisome number of technical and organization root causes for the troubled mission. In March 2020, a joint NASA/Boeing Independent Review Team (IRT) found that three principal anomalies had plagued the flight. Two were classified as “software coding errors”.
You can read more in depth details on the issues HERE in our prior reporting, along with the resolutions. Bottom line now is both Boeing and NASA are confident the issues are resolved, and look ahead to the second OFT as soon as July 30, which is set to last approximately a week and will dock and undock autonomously at International Docking Adapter (IDA)-2, on the forward-facing port of the station’s Harmony node.
The spacecraft will also deliver approximately 760 pounds of payload, including 440 pounds of NASA cargo and supplies for the current ISS crew members, a commemorative U.S. flag that will remain aboard the ISS until it returns to Earth on Starliner’s first crewed mission, the Crew Flight Test (CFT). That said, OFT-2 will also deliver provisions for that mission like clothes and sleeping bags for CFT astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke.
Boeing’s 320 pounds of cargo includes other special commemorative items for Starliner employees, suppliers and partners who have worked to get the spacecraft flying safely. A card that Boeing’s founder, Bill Boeing, signed and used to travel the United States by air will also fly on OFT-2, along with Silver Snoopy pins, which are presented by astronauts to people that directly contribute to the success of the U.S. human spaceflight program.
Rosie the Riveter commemorative coins will also be onboard, created to celebrate last year’s passage of the Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal Act, which honors 19 million American women who worked in the aerospace industry as men went off to fight in World War II.
And Boeing’s Rosie the Riveter ‘anthropometric test device’ will fly once again in the commander’s seat, same as on OFT-1, except this time she will serve to help the spacecraft maintain its center of gravity throughout the various phases of the flight.
“She is a 180 pound test device in European tan that is meant to represent the 50th percentile of human dimensions in height and weight,” said Melanie Weber, the subsystem lead for Crew and Cargo Accommodations on the Commercial Crew Program. “Rosie’s first flight provided hundreds of data points about what astronauts will experience during flight, but this time she’ll help maintain Starliner’s center of gravity during ascent, docking, undocking and landing.”
You can read more about Rosie’s role in the mission HERE.
Both NASA and Boeing have also been busy with mission control teams in Florida and Texas conducting simulated mission dress rehearsals for OFT-2 and future crewed flights. Starliner’s landing and recovery teams are also doing on-site checkouts of one of the vehicle’s landing zones.
“I am extremely proud of the NASA and Boeing Starliner teams as they methodically work toward the OFT-2 mission,” said Steve Stich, NASA Commercial Crew Program manager.
Assuming that OFT-2 runs without significant wrinkles, the way will be clear for the CFT with Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore, Pilot Nicole Mann and Joint Operations Commander (JOC) Mike Fincke, before the end of the year.