KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Buildup of the first of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew spaceships is ramping up at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) – the new spacecraft manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.
‘Starliner’ was recently unveiled as the new name for Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew vehicle during the Sept. 2015 Grand Opening of the C3PF production site, the renovated servicing hanger which previously prepared NASA’s space shuttle orbiters for flight.
This maiden test version of ‘Starliner’ is known as the structural test article and plays a critical role serving as the pathfinder vehicle to validate the manufacturing and processing methods for the production of all the operational spacecraft that will follow in the future – and eventually carry crews of four astronauts aloft to the space station in 2017.
The structural test article, also known as the STA, is currently being built inside the C3PF using the same techniques and processes planned for the operational spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Danom Buck, manager of Boeing’s Manufacturing and Engineering team at KSC, during a media tour in December which included Universe Today. See my photos above and below.
Components for the STA began arriving earlier this year, including the largest pieces such as the upper and lower domes of the Starliner crew command module as well as the crew access tunnel and the tunnel adapter.
I visited the Starliner STA vehicle up close in the C3PF during my media visits to observe the manufacturing progress first hand, as its coming together over time.
“We are very excited and having a lot of fun,” Buck told Universe Today during an interview in the C3PF. “Everyone loves the fact that there is real space hardware back in this facility again.”
Since the facilities Grand Opening three months ago, significant progress has been made assembling the STA crew and service modules.
“The lower and upper domes comprise the primary structure of the crew module,” Buck explained. “Dome assembly is complete and the tunnel has been attached.”
“Since September, the tunnel, seal and dome are all mechanically fastened together.”
“They are sealed surfaces with no welds whatsoever, using matched drill holes and gaskets. The tunnel to the upper dome is sealed with a Parker Gasko seal and about 100 fasteners that hold it down, along with four anodized longerons and another 100 matched drill holes. All the work is done with very tight tolerances,” Buck told me.
“The next phase is to outfit the STA with the mass simulators for items like propulsion, tanks, batteries, etc. We are also attaching about 1000 strain gauges with 1600 channels of data to the lower and upper domes.”
Starliner is built with alot of unique technology as well as heritage hardware.
“Both of the domes were built with weldless technology,” Buck elaborated. “The upper and lower domes will be bolted together.”
“So it’s been evolutionary from our days on the Delta 2, 3 and 4 rocket programs, where we made spun formed domes for the propulsion tanks. So iteratively we’ve been making the largest spun formed domes in the world. And these are the latest iteration.”
Among the lessons learned during development was to construct the domes from a different alloy to make them lighter in weight.
“The change in alloys gave about 100 pounds saving in weight off the domes,” Buck stated. That’s a big deal because every pound of savings is converted into up mass.”
After STA assembly is complete at KSC, it will be transported to California for a period of critical stress testing that verifies the capabilities and worthiness of the spacecraft.
“We put it together and ship it out to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California for testing. They have all the facilities to do the structural testing and apply loads. They are set up to test spacecraft.”
“At Huntington Beach we will test for all of the load cases that the vehicle will fly in and land in – so all of the worst stressing cases.”
“So we have predicted loads and will compare that to what we actually see in testing and see whether that matches what we predicted.”
What is the assembly schedule for the STA?
“The STA will be completed in early 2016,” says John Mulholland Boeing Vice President, Commercial Programs.
“Then we start assembly of the Qualification Test Article.”
Boeing has already begun to receive initial components for the Qual Test Article, which will eventually be outfitted to fly crews to space.
Although the STA will never fly to space, it will be used by Boeing to prove the effectiveness of the Starliner escape system and to conduct a pad abort test.
“We learn along the way and then work on the next unit,” Buck told Universe Today.
“The Qualification Test article should be nearly completed by around the middle of next year .”
Starliner is being developed under contract with NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) with the goal of restoring America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS in 2017.
The Starliner also counts as one of history’s first two privately developed ‘Space Taxis’ destined to carry humans to space – along with the Crew Dragon being simultaneously developed by SpaceX – under NASA’s commercial crew initiative.
Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.
It is also a key part of NASA’s overarching strategy to send Humans on a “Journey to Mars” in the 2030s.
NASA started CCP back in 2010 to foster the development of a new US human rated spacecraft. The goal was to create a low cost, safe and reliable vehicle to transport astronauts to the ISS. And the program is finally coming to fruition with critically needed budget support from the US Congress that will keep the vehicles on track and prevent further launch delays.
Earlier this month Congress at last agreed to fully fund the Obama Administrations CCP funding request in the recently passed 2016 omnibus bill that funds the entire Federal government through this September – as outlined in my story here.
The Starliner STA is rapidly taking shape in the C3PF hanger building previously known as Orbiter Processing Facility-3 (OPF-3) and utilized by NASA to process the agency’s space shuttle orbiters between crewed flights during the three decade long Space Shuttle program.
The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ is at the forefront of ushering in the new era of commercial space flight that will completely revolutionize how we access, explore and exploit space for the benefit of all mankind.
In May 2015 NASA ordered the first ever commercial human spaceflight mission from Boeing for a crew rotation mission.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.