So it Begins, Red Dragon Delayed 2 Years to 2020

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2020. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – With so many exciting projects competing for the finite time of SpaceX’s super talented engineers, something important had to give. And that something comes in the form of slipping the blastoff of SpaceX’s ambitious Red Dragon initiative to land the first commercial spacecraft on Mars by 2 years – to 2020. Nevertheless it will include a hefty science payload, SpaceX’s President told Universe Today.

The Red Dragon launch postponement from 2018 to 2020 was announced by SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell during a Falcon 9 prelaunch press conference at historic pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, said SpaceX Gwynne Shotwell at the pad 39a briefing.

“So we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that.”

And whenever Red Dragon does liftoff, it will carry a significant “science payload” to the Martian surface, Shotwell told me at the pad 39A briefing.

“As much [science] payload on Dragon as we can,” Shotwell said. Science instruments would be provided by “European and commercial guys … plus our own stuff!”

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell meets the media at Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 17 Feb 2017 ahead of launch of the CRS-10 mission on 19 Feb 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Another factor potentially at play is yesterdays (Feb 27) announcement by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk that he has two hefty, revenue generating paying customers for a manned Moonshot around the Moon that could blastoff on a commercial crew Dragon as soon as next year atop a Falcon Heavy from pad 39A – as I reported here.

Whereas SpaceX is footing the bill for the private Red Dragon venture.

Pad 39A is the same pad from which the Red Dragon mission will eventually blastoff atop a heavy lift SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket – and which just reopened for launch business last week on Feb. 19 after lying dormant for more than 6 years since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program in July 2011.

So at least the high hurdle of reopening pad 39A has been checked off!

Raindrops keep falling on the lens, as inaugural SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon disappears into the low hanging rain clouds at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center after liftoff from pad 39A on Feb. 19, 2017. Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission is delivering over 5000 pounds of science and supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX continues to dream big – setting its extraterrestrial sights on the Moon and Mars.

Musk founded SpaceX with the dream of transporting Humans to the Red Planet and establishing a ‘City on Mars’.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2020. Credit: SpaceX

Since launch windows to Mars are only available every two years due to the laws of physics and planetary alignments, the minimum Red Dragon launch delay automatically amounts to 2 years.

Furthermore the oft delayed Falcon Heavy has yet to launch on its maiden mission.

Shotwell said the maiden Falcon Heavy launch from pad 39A is planned to occur this summer, around mid year or so – after Pad 40 is back up and running.

And the commercial crew Dragon 2 spacecraft being built under contract to NASA to launch American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) has also seen its maiden launch postponed more than six months over the past calendar year.

Finishing the commercial crew Dragon is absolutely critical to NASA for launching US astronauts to the ISS from US soil – in order to end our total dependence on Russia and the Soyuz capsule at a cost in excess of $80 million per seat.

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

The bold Red Dragon endeavor which involved launching an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon cargo spacecraft to carry out a propulsive soft landing on Mars as soon as 2018, was initially announced with great fanfare by SpaceX less than a year ago in April 2016.

At that time, SpaceX signed a space act agreement with NASA, wherein the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for ‘Red Dragon’ and NASA would reciprocally benefit from SpaceX technologies for Mars landing.

But given the magnitude of the work required for this extremely ambitious Mars landing mission, the two year postponement was pretty much expected from the beginning by this author.

The main goal is to propulsively land the heaviest payload ever on Mars – something 5-10 times the size of anything landed before.

“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX noted last April.

Red Dragon will utilize supersonic retropropulsion to achieve a safe touchdown.

I asked Shotwell whether Red Dragon would include a science payload? Would Universities and Industry compete to submit proposals?

“Yes we had planned to fly [science] stuff in 2018, but people are also more ready to fly in 2020 than 2018,” Shotwell replied.

“Yes we are going to put as much [science] payload on Dragon as we can. By the way, just Dragon landing alone will be the largest mass ever put on the surface of Mars. Just the empty Dragon alone. That will be pretty crazy!”

“There are a bunch of folks that want to fly [science], including European customers, commercial guys.”

“Yeah there will be [science] stuff on Dragon – plus our own stuff!” Shotwell elaborated.

Whenever it does fly, SpaceX will utilize a recycled cargo Dragon from one of the space station resupply missions for NASA, said Jessica Jensen, SpaceX Dragon Mission manager at a KSC media briefing.

NASA’s still operating 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

Dramatic wide angle mosaic view of butte with sandstone layers showing cross-bedding in the Murray Buttes region on lower Mount Sharp with distant view to rim of Gale crater, taken by Curiosity rover’s Mastcam high resolution cameras. This photo mosaic was assembled from Mastcam color camera raw images taken on Sol 1454, Sept. 8, 2016 and stitched by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, with added artificial sky. Featured at APOD on 5 Oct 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL/MSSS/Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA’s agency wide goal is to send humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s utilizing the SLS rocket and Orion deep space capsule – slated for their uncrewed maiden launch in late 2018.

Although NASA has just initiated a feasibility study to alter the mission and add 2 astronauts with a revised liftoff date of 2019.

Of course it all depends on whether the new Trump Administration bolsters NASA or slashes NASA funding.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Elon Musk Announces Daring SpaceX Dragon Flight Beyond Moon with 2 Private Astronauts in 2018

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced plans on Feb. 27, 2017 to launch a commercial crew SpaceX Dragon to beyond the Moon and back with two private astronauts in 2018 using a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launching from the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Elon Musk, billionaire founder and CEO of SpaceX, announced today (27 Feb) a daring plan to launch a commercial manned journey “to beyond the Moon and back” in 2018 flying aboard an advanced crewed Dragon spacecraft paid for by two private astronauts – at a media telecon.

Note: Check back again for updated details on this breaking news story.

“This is an exciting thing! We have been approached to do a crewed mission to beyond the Moon by some private individuals,” Musk announced at the hastily arranged media telecon just concluded this afternoon which Universe Today was invited to participate in.

The private two person crew would fly aboard a human rated Dragon on a long looping trajectory around the moon and far beyond on an ambitious mission lasting roughly eight days and that could blastoff by late 2018 – if all goes well with rocket and spacecraft currently under development, but not yet flown.

“This would do a long leap around the moon,” Musk said. “We’re working out the exact parameters, but this would be approximately a week long mission – and it would skim the surface of the moon, go quite a bit farther out into deep space, and then loop back to Earth. I’m guessing probably distance wise, maybe 300,000 or 400,000 miles.”

The private duo would fly on a ‘free return’ trajectory around the Moon – but not land on the Moon like NASA did in the 1960s and 1970s.

But they would venture further out into deep space than any humans have ever been before.

No human has traveled beyond low Earth orbit in more than four decades since Apollo 17 – NASA’s final lunar landing mission in December 1972, and commanded by recently deceased astronaut Gene Cernan.

“Like the Apollo astronauts before them, these individuals will travel into space carrying the hopes and dreams of all humankind, driven by the universal human spirit of exploration,” says SpaceX.

Musk said the private crew of two would launch on a Dragon 2 crew spacecraft atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy booster from historic pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida – the same pad that just reopened for business last week with the successful launch of a cargo Dragon to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA on the CRS-10 mission.

“They are two paying customers,” Musk elaborated. “They’re very serious about it.”

“But nobody from Hollywood.”

“They will fly using a Dragon 2 and Falcon Heavy next year in 2018.”

“The lunar orbit mission would launch about 6 months after the [first] NASA crew to the space station on Falcon 9/Dragon 2,” Musk told Universe Today.

Musk noted they had put down “a significant deposit” and will undergo extensive flight training.

He declined to state the cost – but just mentioned it would be more than the cost of a Dragon seat for a flight to the space station, which is about $58 million.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is currently developing the commercial crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to transport astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) and the International Space Station (ISS) under a NASA funded a $2.6 billion public/private contract. Boeing was also awarded a $4.2 Billion commercial crew contract by NASA to build the crewed CST-100 Starliner for ISS missions.

The company is developing the triple barreled Falcon Heavy with its own funds – which is derived from the single barreled Falcon 9 rocket funded by NASA.

But neither the Dragon 2 nor the Falcon Heavy have yet launched to space and their respective maiden missions haven been postponed multiple time for several years – due to a combination of funding and technical issues.

So alot has to go right for this private Moonshot mission to actually lift off by the end of next year.

NASA is developing the new SLS heavy lift booster and Orion capsule for deep space missions to the Moon, Asteroids and Mars.

The inaugural uncrewed SLS/Orion launch is slated for late 2018. But NASA just announced the agency has started a feasibility study to examine launching a crew on the first Orion dubbed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) on a revamped mission in 2019 rather than 2021 on EM-2.

Thus the potential exists that SpaceX could beat NASA back to the Moon with humans.

I asked Musk to describe the sequence of launches leading up to the private Moonshot and whether a crewed Dragon 2 would launch initially to the ISS.

Musk replied that SpaceX hopes to launch the first uncrewed Dragon 2 test flight to the ISS by the end of this year on the firm’s Falcon 9 rocket – almost identical to the rocket that just launched on Feb. 19 from pad 39A.

That would be followed by crewed launch to the ISS around mid-2018 and the private Moonshot by the end of 2018.

“The timeline is we expect to launch a human rated Dragon 2 on Falcon 9 by the end of this year, but without people on board just for the test flight to the space station,” Musk told Universe Today.

“Then about 6 months later we would fly with a NASA crew to the space station on Falcon 9/Dragon 2.”

“And then about 6 months after that, assuming the schedule holds by end of next year, is when we would do the lunar orbit mission.”

I asked Musk about whether any heat shield modifications to Dragon 2 were required?

“The heat shield is quite massively over designed,” Musk told me during the telecom.

“It’s actually designed for multiple Earth orbit reentry missions – so that we can actually do up to 10 reentry missions with the same heat shield.”

“That means it can actually do at least 1 lunar orbit reentry velocity missions, and conceivably maybe 2.”

“So we do not expect any redesign of the heat shield.”

The reentry velocity and heat generated from a lunar mission is far higher than from a low Earth orbit mission to the space station.

Nevertheless the flight is not without risk.

The Dragon 2 craft will need some upgrades. For example “a deep space communications system” with have to be installed for longer trips, said Musk.

Dragon currently is only equipped for shorter Earth orbiting missions.

The flight must also be approved by the FAA before its allowed to blastoff – as is the case with all commercial launches like the Feb. 19 Falcon 9/Cargo Dragon mission for NASA.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Musk declined to identify the two individuals or their genders but did say they know one another.

They must pass health and training tests.

“We expect to conduct health and fitness tests, as well as begin initial training later this year,’ noted SpaceX.

The flight itself would be very autonomous. The private passengers will train for emergencies but would not be responsible for piloting Dragon.

Historic maiden blastoff of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center) at 9:38 a.m. EDT on Feb 19, 2017, on Dragon CRS-10 resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Musk said he would give top priority to NASA astronauts for the Moonshot mission if the agency wanted to procure the seats ahead of the private passengers.

He noted that SpaceX would have the capability to launch one or 2 private moonshots per year.

“I think this should be a really exciting mission that gets the world really excited about sending people into deep space again. I think it should be super inspirational,” Musk said.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on Feb 19, 2017 for NASA on the Dragon CRS-10 delivery mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket goes vertical at night atop Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on 19 Feb 2017 as seen after midnight from the pad perimeter. This is the first rocket rolled out to launch from pad 39A since the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttles in July 2011. Liftoff of the CRS-10 mission slated for 19 Feb 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
An artist's illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX
An artist’s illustration of the Falcon Heavy rocket. Image: SpaceX

Boeing Unveils Blue Spacesuits for Starliner Crew Capsule

Chris Ferguson, Boeing director of Starliner Crew and Mission Systems and a former NASA astronaut and Space Shuttle commander wears the brand new spacesuit from Boeing and David Clark that crews will wear on Starliner missions to the ISS. Credit: Boeing

Boeing has unveiled the advanced new lightweight spacesuits that astronauts will sport as passengers aboard the company’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi during commercial taxi journey’s to and from and the International Space Station (ISS) and other low Earth orbit destinations.

The signature ‘Boeing Blue’ spacesuits will be much lighter, as well as more flexible and comfortable compared to earlier generations of spacesuits worn by America’s astronauts over more than five decades of human spaceflight, starting with the Mercury capsule to the latest gear worn by Space Shuttle astronauts.

“The suit capitalizes on historical designs, meets NASA requirements for safety and functionality, and introduces cutting-edge innovations,” say NASA officials.

The suits protect the astronauts during both launch and reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere during the return home.

Indeed, Chris Ferguson, a former NASA Space Shuttle Commander who now works for Boeing as a Starliner program director, helped reveal the ‘Boeing Blue’ spacesuits during a Facebook live event, where he modeled the new suit.

“We slogged through some of the real engineering challenges and now we are getting to the point where those challenges are largely behind us and it’s time to get on to the rubber meeting the road,” Ferguson said.

The suits offer superior functionality, comfort and protection for astronauts who will don them when crewed Starliner flights to the space station begin as soon as next year.

Astronaut Eric Boe evaluates Boeing Starliner spacesuit in mockup of spacecraft cockpit. Credits: Boeing

At roughly half the weight (about 10 pounds vs. 20 pounds) compared to the launch-and-entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts, crews look forward to wearing the ‘Boeing Blue’ suits.

“Spacesuits have come in different sizes and shapes and designs, and I think this fits the Boeing model, fits the Boeing vehicle,” said Chris Ferguson.

Among the advances cited are:

• Lighter and more flexible through use of advanced materials and new joint patterns
• Helmet and visor incorporated into the suit instead of detachable. The suit’s hood-like soft helmet sports a wide polycarbonate visor to give Starliner passengers better peripheral vision throughout their ride to and from space.
• A communications headset within the helmet also helps connect astronauts to ground and space crews
• Touchscreen-sensitive gloves that allow astronauts to interact with the capsule’s tablets screens overhead
• Vents that allow astronauts to be cooler, but can still pressurize the suit immediately
• Breathable, slip resistant boots
• Zippers in the torso area will make it easier for astronauts to comfortably transition from sitting to standing
• Innovative layers will keep astronauts cooler

“The most important part is that the suit will keep you alive,” astronaut Eric Boe said, in a statement. “It is a lot lighter, more form-fitting and it’s simpler, which is always a good thing. Complicated systems have more ways they can break, so simple is better on something like this.”

The astronauts help the designers to perfect the suits very practically by wearing them inside Starliner mock-ups, moving around to accomplish tasks, reaching for the tablets screens, and climbing in and out of the capsule repeatedly, says Boe “so they can establish the best ways for astronauts to work inside the spacecraft’s confines.”

Astronaut Sunni Williams puts on the communications carrier of Boeing’s new Starliner spacesuit. Credits: Boeing

“The spacesuit acts as the emergency backup to the spacecraft’s redundant life support systems,” said Richard Watson, subsystem manager for spacesuits for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“If everything goes perfectly on a mission, then you don’t need a spacesuit. It’s like having a fire extinguisher close by in the cockpit. You need it to be effective if it is needed.”

Boeing graphic of Starliner spacesuit features. Credit: NASA/Boeing

Boe is one of four NASA astronauts that form the core cadre of astronauts training for the initial flight tests aboard either the Boeing Starliner or SpaceX Crew Dragon now under development as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program.

The inaugural flight tests are slated to begin in 2018 under contract to NASA.

The procedure on launch day will be similar to earlier manned launches. For Starliner, however, the capsule will launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket – currently being man-rated.

Fiery blastoff of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the EchoStar XIX satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl., at 2:13 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, 2016. Note recently installed crew access tower and arm to be used for launches of Boeing Starliner crew spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Astronauts will don the new ‘Boeing Blue’ suit in the historic Crew Quarters. The will ride out to the rocket inside an astrovan. After reaching Space Launch Complex 41, they will take the elevator up, stride across the recently installed Crew Access Arm and board Starliner as it stands atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.

The first test flight will carry a crew of two. Soon thereafter the crew size will grow to four when regular crew rotation flights to the ISS starting as soon as 2019.

“To me, it’s a very tangible sign that we are really moving forward and we are a lot closer than we’ve been,” Ferguson said. “The next time we pull all this together, it might be when astronauts are climbing into the actual spacecraft.”

Boeing is currently manufacturing the Starliner spacecraft at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX and NASA Confirm Delay of First Crewed Dragon Flight to 2018

SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon V2 docks at the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Launching Americans back to space and the International Space Station (ISS) from American soil on American rockets via NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) has just suffered another significant but not unexpected delay, with an announcement from NASA that the target date for inaugural crewed flight aboard a SpaceX commercial Crew Dragon has slipped significantly from 2017 to 2018.

NASA announced the revised schedule on Dec. 12 and SpaceX media affairs confirmed the details of the launch delay to Universe Today.

The postponement of the demonstration mission launch is the latest fallout from the recent launch pad explosion of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sept. 1 during final preparations and fueling operations for a routine preflight static fire test.

Since the Falcon 9 is exactly the same booster that SpaceX will employ to loft American astronauts in the SpaceX Crew Dragon to the space station, the stakes could not be higher with astronauts lives on the line.

Blastoff of the first Crew Dragon spacecraft on its first unmanned test flight is postponed from May 2017 to August 2017, according to the latest quarterly revision just released by NASA. Liftoff of the first piloted Crew Dragon with a pair of NASA astronauts strapped in has slipped from August 2017 to May 2018.

“The Commercial crew updated dates for Demo 1 (no crew) is Q4 2017,” SpaceX’s Phil Larson told Universe Today. “For Demo 2 (with 2 crew members) the updated commercial crew date is Q2 2018 [for Crew Dragon].”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

Although much has been accomplished since NASA’s commercial crew program started in 2010, much more remains to be done before NASA will approve these launches.

“The next generation of American spacecraft and rockets that will launch astronauts to the International Space Station are nearing the final stages of development and evaluation,” said NASA KSC public affairs officer Stephanie Martin.

Above all both of the commercial crew providers – namely Boeing and SpaceX – must demonstrate safe, reliable and robust spacecraft and launch systems.

“NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will return human spaceflight launches to U.S. soil, providing reliable and cost-effective access to low-Earth orbit on systems that meet our safety and mission requirements. To meet NASA’s requirements, the commercial providers must demonstrate that their systems are ready to begin regular flights to the space station.”

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL,  on Sept. 1, 2016.  A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket moments after catastrophic explosion destroys the rocket and Amos-6 Israeli satellite payload at launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, on Sept. 1, 2016. A static hot fire test was planned ahead of scheduled launch on Sept. 3, 2016. Credit: USLaunchReport

These latest launch delays come on top of other considerable delays announced earlier this year when SpaceX has still hoping to launch the unpiloted Crew Dragon mission before the end of 2016 – prior to the Sept 1 launch pad catastrophe.

“We are finalizing the investigation of our Sept. 1 anomaly and are working to complete the final steps necessary to safely and reliably return to flight,” Larson told me.

“As this investigation has been conducted, our Commercial Crew team has continued to work closely with NASA and is completing all planned milestones for this period.”

SpaceX is still investigating the root causes of the Sept. 1 anomaly, working on fixes and implementing any design changes – as well as writing the final report that must be submitted to the FAA, before they can launch the planned ‘Return to Flight’ mission from their California launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

No launch can occur until the FAA grants a license after fully assessing the SpaceX anomaly report.

Last week SpaceX announced a delay in resuming launches at Vandenberg until no earlier than January 2017.

“We are carefully assessing our designs, systems, and processes taking into account the lessons learned and corrective actions identified. Our schedule reflects the additional time needed for this assessment and implementation,” Larson elaborated.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying JCSAT-16 Japanese communications satellite to orbit on Aug. 14, 2016 at 1:26 a.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing has likewise significantly postponed their debut unpiloted and piloted launches of their CST-100 Starliner astronaut space taxi by more than six months this year alone.

The first crewed Boeing Starliner is now slated for a launch in August 2018, possibly several months after SpaceX. But the schedules keep changing so it’s anyone’s guess as to when these commercial crew launches will actually occur.

Another big issue that has cropped up since the Sept. 1 pad disaster, regards the procedures and timing for fueling the Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts on board. SpaceX is proposing to load the propellants with the crew already on board, unlike the practice of the past 50 years where the astronauts climbed aboard after the extremely dangerous fueling operation was completed.

SpaceX proposes this change due to their recent use of superchilled liquid oxygen and resulting new operational requirement to fuel the rocket in the last 30 minutes prior to liftoff.

Although a SpaceX hazard report outlining these changes was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016, an objection was raised by former astronaut Maj. Gen. Thomas Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee.

“SpaceX has designed a reliable fueling and launch process that minimizes the duration and number of personnel exposed to the hazards of launching a rocket,” Larson explained.

“As part of this process, the crew will safely board the Crew Dragon, ground personnel will depart, propellants will be carefully loaded and then the vehicle will launch. During this time the Crew Dragon launch abort system will be enabled.”

SpaceX says they have performed a detailed safety analysis with NASA of all potential hazards with this process.

“The hazard report documenting the controls was approved by NASA’s Safety Technical Review Board in July 2016.”

SpaceX representatives recently met with Stafford and the ISS review board to address their concerns, but the outcome and whether anything was resolved is not known.

“We recently met with Maj. Gen. Stafford and the International Space Station Advisory Committee to provide them detailed information on our approach and answer a number of questions. SpaceX and NASA will continue our ongoing assessment while keeping the committee apprised of our progress,” Larson explained.

The Falcon 9 fueling procedure issue relating to astronaut safety must be satisfactorily resolved before any human launch with Dragon can take place, and will be reported on further here.

Whenever the Crew Dragon does fly it will launch from the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at Launch Complex 39A – the former shuttle launch pad which SpaceX has leased from NASA.

SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
SpaceX is renovating Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center for launches of the Falcon Heavy and human rated Falcon 9. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

SpaceX is currently renovating pad 39A for launches of manned Falcon 9/Dragon missions. And the firm has decided to use it for commercial missions as well while pad 40 is repaired following the pad accident.

This week a Falcon 9 first stage was spotted entering Cape Canaveral to prepare for an upcoming launch.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek
SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Dec. 12, 2016 for launch sometime in 2017. Credit: Julian Leek

Getting our astronauts back to space with home grown technology is proving to be far more difficult and time consuming than anyone anticipated – despite the relative simplicity of developing capsule-like vehicles vs. NASA’s highly complex and hugely capable Space Shuttle vehicles.

And time is of the essence for the commercial crew program.

Because for right now, the only path to the ISS for all American astronauts is aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule through seats purchased by NASA – at about $82 million each. But NASA’s contract with Roscosmos for future flight opportunities runs out at the end of 2018. So there is barely a few months margin left before the last available contracted seat is taken.

It takes about 2 years lead time for Russia to build the Soyuz and NASA is not planning to buy any new seats.

So any further delays to SpaceX or Boeing could result in an interruption of US and partner flights to the ISS in 2019 – which is primarily American built.

Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.
Exterior of the Crew Dragon capsule. Credit: SpaceX.

Since its inception, the commercial crew program has been severely and shortsightedly underfunded by the US Congress. They have repeatedly cut the Administration’s annual budget requests, delaying forward progress and first crewed flights from 2015 to 2018, and forcing NASA to buy additional Soyuz seats from Russia at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A new ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which American astronauts will soon stride along as “the last place on Earth” departure point aboard our next generation of human spaceships, was at long last hoisted into place at the ULA Atlas rocket launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast on Monday Aug 15, at an “awesome” media event witnessed by space journalists including Universe Today.

“This is awesome,” Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is now Boeing’s deputy program manager for the company’s Commercial Crew Program told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the launch pad – after workers finished installing the spanking new Crew Access Arm walkway for astronauts leading to the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner ‘Space Taxi.’

Starliner will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as 2018.

“It’s great to see the arm up there,” Ferguson elaborated to Universe Today. “I know it’s probably a small part of the overall access tower. But it’s the most significant part!”

“We used to joke about the 195 foot level on the shuttle pad as being ‘the last place on Earth.”

“This will now be the new ‘last place on Earth’! So we are pretty charged up about it!” Ferguson gushed.

Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016.   Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor
Up close view of Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room craned into place at Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016. Credit: Dawn Leek Taylor

Under hot sunny skies portending the upcoming restoration of America’s ability to once again launch American astronauts from American soil when American rockets ignite, the newly constructed 50-foot-long, 90,000-pound ‘Crew Access Arm and White Room’ was lifted and mated to the newly built ‘Crew Access Tower’ at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Monday morning, Aug. 15.

“We talked about how the skyline is changing here and this is one of the more visible changes.”

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule stacked atop the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will launch crews to the massive orbiting science outpost continuously soaring some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

Space workers, enthusiasts and dreamers alike have been waiting years for this momentous day to happen. And I was thrilled to observe all the action firsthand along with the people who made it happen from NASA, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, the contractors – as well as to experience it with my space media colleagues.

“All the elements that we talked about the last few years are now reality,” Ferguson told me.

The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft approaches the notch for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 at level 13 on Aug. 15, 2016, as workers observe from upper tower level. Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Attaching the access arm is vital and visual proof that at long last America means business and that a renaissance in human spaceflight will commence in some 18 months or less when commercially built American crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX take flight to the heavens above – and a new space era of regular, robust and lower cost space flights begins.

It took about an hour for workers to delicately hoist the gleaming grey steel and aluminum white ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by crane into place at the top of the tower – at one of the busiest launch pads in the world!

It’s about 130 feet above the pad surface since it’s located at the 13th level of the tower.

The install work began at about 7:30 a.m. EDT as we watched a work crew lower a giant grappling hook and attach cables. Then they carefully raised the arm off the launch pad surface by crane. The arm had been trucked to the launch pad on Aug. 11.

The tower itself is comprised of segmented tiers that were built in segments just south of the pad. They were stacked on the pad over the past few months – in between launches. Altogether they form a nearly 200-foot-tall steel structure.

Another crew stationed in the tower about 160 feet above ground waited as the arm was delicately craned into the designated notch. The workers then spent several more hours methodically bolting and welding the arm to the tower to finish the assembly process.

Indeed Monday’s installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room at pad 41 basically completes the construction of the first new Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo moon landing era of the 1960s.

“It is the first new crew access structure at the Florida spaceport since the space shuttle’s Fixed Service Structures were put in place before Columbia’s first flight in 1981,” say NASA officials.

Overall the steel frame of the massive tower weighs over a million pounds. For perspective, destination ISS now weighs in at about a million pounds in low Earth orbit.

Construction of the tower began about 18 months ago.

“You think about when we started building this 18 months ago and now it’s one of the most visible changes to the Cape’s horizon since the 1960s,” said Ferguson at Monday’s momentous media event. “It’s a fantastic day.”

The White Room is an enclosed area at the end of the Crew Access Arm. It big enough for astronauts to make final adjustments to their suits and is spacious enough for technicians to assist the astronauts climbing aboard the spacecraft and get tucked into their seats in the final hours before liftoff.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at the event. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.”

The Crew Access Arm was built by Saur at NASA’s nearby off site facility at Oak Hill.

And when Starliner takes flight it will hearken back to the dawn of the Space Age.

“John Glenn was the first to fly on an Atlas, now our next leap into the future will be to have astronauts launch from here on Atlas V,” said Barb Egan, program manager for Commercial Crew for ULA.

Boeing is manufacturing Starliner in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a CCP commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program since its inception in 2010 is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

Furthermore when the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon become operational the permanent resident ISS crew will grow to 7 – enabling a doubling of science output aboard the science laboratory.

This significant growth in research capabilities will invaluably assist NASA in testing technologies and human endurance in its agency wide goal of sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s with the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion deep space capsule concurrently under full scale development by the agency.

The next key SLS milestone is a trest firing of the RS-25 main engines at NASA Stennis this Thursday, Aug. 18 – watch for my onsite reports!

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.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

When will Ferguson actually set foot inside the walkway?

“I am hoping to get up there and walk through there in a couple of weeks or so when it’s all strapped in and done. I want to see how they are doing and walk around.”

How does the White Room fit around Starliner and keep it climate controlled?

“The end of the white room has a part that slides up and down and moves over and slides on top of the spacecraft when it’s in place.”

“There is an inflatable seal that forms the final seal to the spacecraft so that you have all the appropriate humidity control and the purge without the Florida atmosphere inside the crew module,” Ferguson replied.

Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Tower and front of White Room during installation.  The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on  United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close, mid-air view of Crew Access Arm and front of White Room during installation. The White Room will fit snugly against Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with inflatable seal to maintain climate control and clean conditions as astronauts board capsule atop Atlas rocket hours before launch on United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Boeing and NASA are targeting Feb. 2018 for launch of the first crewed orbital test flight on the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas will be augmented with two solid rocket motors on the first stage and a dual engine Centaur upper stage.

How confident is Ferguson about meeting the 2018 launch target?

“The first crew flight is scheduled for February 2018. I am confident.” Ferguson responded.

“And we have a lot of qualification to get through between now and then. But barring any large unforeseen issues we can make it.”

The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Crew Access Tower after installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on Aug. 15, 2016 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the details and future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  Credit: Jeff Seibert
As the Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm and White Room are bolted into place behind us at Space Launch Complex 41, Chris Ferguson, former shuttle commander and current Boeing deputy program manager for Commercial Crew, and Ken Kremer of Universe Today discuss the future of human spaceflight on Aug. 15, 2016 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Credit: Jeff Seibert

Boeing Starts Assembly of 1st Flightworthy Starliner Crew Taxi Vehicle at Kennedy Spaceport

Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Hull of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner Structural Test Article (STA)- the first Starliner to be built in the company’s modernized Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – The next generation of America’s human spaceships is rapidly taking shape and “making fantastic progress” at the Kennedy Space Center as Boeing and NASA showcased the start of assembly of the first flightworthy version of the aerospace giants Starliner crew taxi vehicle to the media last week. Starliner will ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) by early 2018.

“We are making fantastic progress across the board,” John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, told Universe Today at the July 26 media event in Boeing’s new Starliner factory.

“It so nice to move from design to firm configuration, which was an incredibly important milestone, to now moving into the integrated qual phase of the campaign.”

Boeing is swiftly making tangible progress towards once again flying Americans astronauts to space from American soil as was quite visibly demonstrated when the firm showed off their spanking new Starliner ‘clean-floor factory’ to the media last week, including Universe Today – and it’s already humming with activity by simultaneously building two full scale Starliner crew vehicles.

“We are on track to support launch by the end of 2017 [of the uncrewed orbital test flight],” Mulholland told me.

“The Structural Test Article (STA) crew module is almost ready to be delivered to the test site in California. The service module is already delivered at the test site. So we are ready to move into the qualification campaign.”

“We are also in the middle of component qualification and qualifying more than one component every week as we really progress into assembly, integration and test of flight design spacecrafts.”

Starliner is being manufactured in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

And the Boeing CST-100 Starliner assembly line aiming to send our astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station is now operating full speed ahead at KSC.

Formerly known as Orbiter Processing Facility-3, or OPF-3, the facility was previously used as a servicing hanger to prepare NASA’s space shuttle orbiters for flight.

NASA-Boeing Mentor NASA, industry and news media representatives visit the modernized high bay in Boeing's Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.   Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett
NASA, industry and news media representatives visit the modernized high bay in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credits: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The facility has now been completely renovated and refurbished by removing about 11,000 tons of massive steel work platforms that once enshrouded the space shuttle orbiters for servicing and refurbishment for flight – and been transformed into Boeings gleaming white C3PF Starliner manufacturing facility.

Components for the first Starliner that will actually fly in space – known as Spacecraft 1 – began arriving recently at the C3PF. These include the upper and lower domes, as well as the docking hatch for the spacecrafts pressure vessel.

“You can see the beginning of Spacecraft 1. To build it all of the major structural elements are here,” Mulholland explained.

“The lower dome will be populated and get to first power on early next year. We are really looking forward to that. Then we will mate that to the upper dome and start in on the ground qualification on Spacecraft 1.”

Altogether Boeing is fabricating three Starliner flight spacecraft.

“We will start building Spacecraft 2 in the Fall of this year. And then we will start Spacecraft 3 early next year.”

“So we will have three Starliner spacecraft flight crew module builds as we move into the flight campaign.”

The honeycombed upper dome of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft on a work stand inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The upper dome is part of Spacecraft 1 , the first flightworthy Starliner being developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The honeycombed upper dome of a Boeing Starliner spacecraft on a work stand inside the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The upper dome is part of Spacecraft 1 , the first flightworthy Starliner being developed in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Technicians are outfitting these individual components of the pressure vessel with wiring and lines, avionics and other systems, before they are bolted together.

Spacecraft 1 is actually the second Starliner being manufactured at the Kennedy Space Center.

The first full scale Starliner vehicle to be built is known as the Structural Test Article (STA) and is nearing completion.

The lower dome of the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly being outfitted with flight systems like wiring,  lines, avionics in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The lower dome of the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly being outfitted with flight systems like wiring, lines, avionics in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Notably Spacecraft 1 will be the first Starliner to fly in the company’s pad abort test.

“Spacecraft 1 will go into the ground campaign and then the pad abort,” Mulholland stated.

“The test is designed to prove the launch abort system planned for the spacecraft will be able to lift astronauts away from danger in the event of an emergency during launch operations,” says NASA.

The Pad Abort test is currently slated for October 2017 in New Mexico. Boeing will fly an uncrewed orbital flight test in December 2017 and a crewed orbital flight test in February 2018.

“Spacecraft 3 will be the first to fly in orbit on the uncrewed flight test by the end of 2017,” Mulholland confirmed.

‘Spacecraft 2 will go through a several month long thermal vac testing and EMI and EMC in California in the middle of next year and then go into the crewed flight test [in 2018].”

The rather distinctive, olive colored aluminum domes are manufactured using a weldless spin forming process by Spincraft, based in North Billerica, Massachusetts.

They take on their honeycombed look after being machined for the purposes of reducing weight and increasing strength to handle the extreme stresses of spaceflight. The lower dome is machined by Janicki Industries in Layton, Utah, and the upper dome is machined by Major Tool & Machine in Indianapolis.

Overhead view of the docking hatch for the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly which technicians will soon join to the upper dome in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Overhead view of the docking hatch for the Boeing Starliner Spacecraft 1 assembly which technicians will soon join to the upper dome in the firm’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Engineers bolted together the upper and lower domes of Boeings maiden Starliner crew module in early May to form the complete hull of the pressure vessel for the Structural Test Article (STA).

Altogether they are held together by 216 bolts. They have to line up perfectly. And the seals are checked to make sure there are no leaks, which could be deadly in space.

Boeing expects to finish fabricating the STA by August.

The completed Starliner STA will then be transported to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California for a period of critical stress testing that verifies the capabilities and worthiness of the spacecraft.

“Boeing’s testing facility in Huntington Beach, California has all the facilities to do the structural testing and apply loads. They are set up to test spacecraft,” said Danom Buck, manager of Boeing’s Manufacturing and Engineering team at KSC, during an interview in the C3PF.

“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.”

Boeing has also vastly updated the mockup Starliner to reflect the latest spacecraft advances and assist in manufacturing the three planned flight units.

Bastian Technologies built many of the components for the mockup and signed as new 18-month new Mentor-Protégé Program agreement with Boeing and NASA at the media event.

The mock up “is used as a hands-on way to test the design, accessibility and human factors during the early design and development phase of the program. The mock-up is currently being used for rapid fire engineering verification activities, ergonomic evaluations [including the seats and display panels], and crew ingress and egress training,” says NASA.

Looking inside the newly upgraded Starliner mockup with display panel, astronauts seats, gear and hatch at top that will dock to the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the ISS.    Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Looking inside the newly upgraded Starliner mockup with display panel, astronauts seats, gear and hatch at top that will dock to the new International Docking Adapter (IDA) on the ISS. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

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.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

Starliners will launch to space atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) lifts off from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The Boeing Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket similar to the one carrying the NROL-61 surveillance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from Space Launch Complex-41 on July 28, 2016 at 8:37 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015.   Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center. Exterior view depicts mural for the Boeing Company’s recently named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, and Ken Kremer, Universe Today, discuss status and assembly of 1st flightworthy Boeing Starliner by the new Starliner mockup in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Starliner will transport US astronauts to the ISS by 2018.  Credit: Julian Leek
John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs, and Ken Kremer, Universe Today, discuss status and assembly of 1st flightworthy Boeing Starliner by the new Starliner mockup in the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Starliner will transport US astronauts to the ISS by 2018. Credit: Julian Leek

1st Boeing Starliner Hull Assembled as 1st Crew Flight Delays to 2018

The first Boeing CST-100 Starliner hull is bolted together by technicians working in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 2 for  the Structural Test Article pressure vessel.  Credit: NASA
The first Boeing CST-100 Starliner hull is bolted together by technicians working in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 2 for the Structural Test Article pressure vessel. Credit: NASA

As completion nears for the prototype of Boeing’s first Starliner astronaut taxi, the aerospace firm announced a slip into 2018 for the blastoff date of the first crewed flight in order to deal with spacecraft mass, aerodynamic launch and flight software issues, a Boeing spokesperson told Universe Today.

Until this week, Boeing was aiming for a first crewed launch of the commercial Starliner capsule by late 2017, company officials had said.

The new target launch date for the first astronauts flying aboard a Boeing CST-100 Starliner “is February 2018,” Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan told Universe Today.

“Until very recently we were marching toward the 2017 target date.”

Word of the launch postponement came on Wednesday via an announcement by Boeing executive vice president Leanne Caret at a company investor conference.

Boeing will conduct two critical unmanned test flights leading up to the manned test flight and has notified NASA of the revised flight schedule.

“The Pad Abort test is October 2017 in New Mexico. Boeing will fly an uncrewed orbital flight test in December 2017 and a crewed orbital flight test in February 2018,” Regan told me.

Previously, the uncrewed and crewed test flights were slated for June and October 2017.

The inaugural crew flight will carry two astronauts to the International Space Station including a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut.

“Boeing just recently presented this new schedule to NASA that gives a realistic look at where we are in the development. These programs are challenging.”

“As we build and test we are learning things. We are doing everything we can to make sure the vehicle is ready and safe – because that’s what most important,” Regan emphasized.

Indeed engineers just bolted together the upper and lower domes of Boeings maiden Starliner crew module last week, on May 2, forming the complete hull of the pressure vessel for the Structural Test Article (STA).

Boeing was awarded the first service flight of the CST-100 crew capsule to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability agreement with NASA in this artists concept.  Credit: Boeing
Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule approaches the International Space Station in this artists concept. Credit: Boeing

Altogether there are 216 holes for the bolts. They have to line up perfectly. The seals are checked to make sure there are no leaks, which could be deadly in space.

Starliner is being manufactured in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The STA will be subjected to rigorous environmental and loads testing to prove its fitness to fly humans to space and survive the harsh extremes of the space environment.

Regan cited three technical factors accounting for the delayed launch schedule. The first relates to mass.

“There are a couple of things that impacted the schedule as discussed recently by John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration.”

“First is mass of the spacecraft. Mass whether it’s from aircraft or spacecraft is obviously always something that’s inside the box. We are working that,” Regan stated.

The second relates to aerodynamic loads which Boeing engineers believe they may have solved.

“Another challenge is aero-acoustic issues related to the spacecraft atop the launch vehicle. Data showed us that the spacecraft was experiencing some pressures [during launch] that we needed to go work on more.”

Starliners will launch to space atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“The aerodynamic acoustic loads data we were getting told us that we needed to go do some additional work. We actually now have a really viable option that we are testing right now in a wind tunnel this month.”

“So we think we are on the right path there. We have some design options we are looking at. We think we found a viable option that’s inside the scope of where we need to be on those aerodynamic acoustics in load.”

“So we will look at the data from the new wind tunnel tests.”

The third relates to new software requirements from NASA for docking at the ISS.

“NASA also levied some additional software requirements on us, in order to dock with the station. So those additional software requirements alone, in the contract, probably added about 3 months to our schedule, for our developers to work that.”

Technicians monitor connection operation of upper and lower domes of the first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: NASA
Technicians monitor connection operation of upper and lower domes of the first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: Boeing

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

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.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

Due to huge CCP funding cuts by Congress, the targeted launch dates for both Starliner and Crew Dragon have been delayed repeatedly from the initially planned 2015 timeframe to the latest goal of 2017.

Upper and lower domes come together to form first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: NASA
Upper and lower domes come together to form first complete hull for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner’s Structural Test Article vehicle at the Kennedy Space Center on May 2, 2016. Credit: Boeing

The Structural Test Article 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.

Although it will never fly in space, the STA is currently being built inside the renovated C3PF using the same techniques and processes planned for the operational spacecraft that will carry astronaut crews of four or more aloft to the ISS in 2018 and beyond.

View of upper dome and newly attached crew access tunnel of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew  spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.   This is part of the maiden Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s refurbished Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Numerous strain gauges have been installed for loads testing. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
View of upper dome and newly attached crew access tunnel of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. This is part of the maiden Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s refurbished Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Numerous strain gauges have been installed for loads testing. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

“The Structural Test Article is not meant to ever fly in space but rather to prove the manufacturing methods and overall ability of the spacecraft to handle the demands of spaceflight carrying astronauts to the International Space Station,” says NASA.

The STA is also the first spacecraft to come together inside the former shuttle hangar known as an orbiter processing facility, since shuttle Discovery was moved out of the facility following its retirement and move to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., in 2012.

“It’s actually bustling in there right now, which is awesome. Really exciting stuff,”Regan told me.

Regan also confirmed that the completed Starliner STA will soon be transported to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California for a period of critical stress testing that verifies the capabilities and worthiness of the spacecraft.

“Boeing’s testing facility in Huntington Beach, California has all the facilities to do the structural testing and apply loads. They are set up to test spacecraft,” said Danom Buck, manager of Boeing’s Manufacturing and Engineering team at KSC, during a prior interview in the C3PF.

“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.”

NASA notes that “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.”

Lessons learned will be applied to the first flight test models of the Starliner. Some of those parts have already arrived at KSC and are “in the manufacturing flow in Florida.”

“Our team is initiating qualification testing on dozens of components and preparing to assemble flight hardware,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Programs, in a statement. “These are the first steps in an incredibly exciting, important and challenging year.”

View of lower dome of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew  spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and known as the Structural Test Article (STA), with many strain gauges installed.  The Starliner STA is being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
View of lower dome of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and known as the Structural Test Article (STA), with many strain gauges installed. The Starliner STA is being built at Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

SpaceX has announced plans to launch their first crew Dragon test flight before the end of 2017.

But the launch schedules for both Boeing and SpaceX are subject to review, dependent on satisfactorily achieving all agreed to milestones under the CCP contracts and approval by NASA, and can change at any time. So additional schedule alternations are not unexpected.

Boeing’s commercial CST-100 'Space Taxi' will carry a crew of five astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil.   Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing’s commercial CST-100 ‘Space Taxi’ will carry a crew of four or more astronauts to low Earth orbit and the ISS from US soil. Mockup with astronaut mannequins seated below pilot console and Samsung tablets was unveiled on June 9, 2014 at its planned manufacturing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015.   Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com
Boeing ‘Starliner’ commercial crew space taxi manufacturing facility marks Grand Opening at the Kennedy Space Center on Sept 4. 2015. Exterior view depicting newly installed mural for the Boeing Company’s newly named CST-100 ‘Starliner’ commercial crew transportation spacecraft on the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

SpaceX Crew Dragon Conducts Propulsive Hover and Parachute Drop Tests; Videos

SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

On the road to restoring US Human spaceflight from US soil, SpaceX conducted a pair of key tests involving a propulsive hover test and parachute drop test for their Crew Dragon vehicle which is slated to begin human missions in 2017.

SpaceX released a short video showing the Dragon 2 vehicle executing a “picture-perfect propulsive hover test” on a test stand at the firms rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

The video published last week shows the Dragon 2 simultaneously firing all eight of its side mounted SuperDraco engines, during a five second test carried out on Nov. 22, 2015.

Using the SuperDragos will eventually enable pinpoint propulsive soft landings like a helicopter in place of parachute assisted landings in the ocean or on the ground.

The video clip seen below includes both full speed and slow motion versions of the test, showing the vehicle rising and descending slowly on the test stand.

Video caption: SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test firing at rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.

The eight SuperDraco thrusters are mounted in sets 90 degrees apart around the perimeter of the vehicle in pairs called “jet packs.”

The SuperDracos generate a combined total of 33,000 lbs of thrust.

SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon under the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) awarded by NASA to transport crews of four or more astronauts to the International Space Station.

“This test was the second of a two-part milestone under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program,” said SpaceX officials. “The first test—a short firing of the engines intended to verify a healthy propulsion system—was completed November 22, and the longer burn two-days later demonstrated vehicle control while hovering.”

The first unmanned and manned orbital test flights of the crew Dragon are expected sometime in 2017. A crew of two NASA astronauts should fly on the first crewed test before the end of 2017.

Parachute drop test for SpaceX crew Dragon involving  four red-and-white parachutes unfurled from a mass simulator high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona. Credit NASA/SpaceX
Parachute drop test for SpaceX crew Dragon involving four red-and-white parachutes unfurled from a mass simulator high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona. Credit NASA/SpaceX

Initially, the Crew Dragon will land via parachutes in the ocean before advancing to use of pinpoint propulsive landing.

Thus SpaceX recently conducted a parachute drop test involving deployment of four red-and-white parachutes unfurling high above the desert near Coolidge, Arizona using a mass simulator in place of the capsule.

Video Caption: SpaceX performed a successful test of its parachute system for the Crew Dragon spacecraft near Coolidge, Arizona, as part of its final development and certification work with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Using a weight simulant in the place of a boilerplate spacecraft, four main parachutes were rigged to deploy just as they would when the Crew Dragon returns to Earth with astronauts aboard. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

“The mass simulator and parachutes were released thousands of feet above the ground from a C-130 cargo aircraft. This test evaluated the four main parachutes, but did not include the drogue chutes that a full landing system would utilize,” said NASA.

Since the CCP program finally received full funding from Congress in the recently passed Fiscal Year 2016 NASA budget, the program is currently on track to achieve the orbital test flight milestones.

Boeing and SpaceX were awarded contracts by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in September 2014 worth $6.8 Billion to complete the development and manufacture of the privately developed Starliner CST-100 and Crew Dragon astronaut transporters under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

The Crew Dragon will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. The historic launch pad has been leased by SpaceX from NASA and is being refurbished for launches of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.

SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida  for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is  undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company's Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com
SpaceX Crew Dragon will blast off atop a Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for missions to the International Space Station. Pad 39A is undergoing modifications by SpaceX to adapt it to the needs of the company’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which are slated to lift off from the historic pad in the near future. A horizontal integration facility (right) has been constructed near the perimeter of the pad where rockets will be processed for launch prior of rolling out to the top of the pad structure for liftoff. Credit: Ken Kremer/Kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts

SNC's Dream Chaser Spacecraft and Cargo Module attached to the ISS. Credit: SNC
SNC’s Dream Chaser Spacecraft and Cargo Module attached to the ISS. Credit: SNC

A shuttle will soar again from American soil before this decade is out, following NASA’s announcement today (Jan 14) that an unmanned version of the Dream Chaser spaceplane was among the trio of US awardees winning commercial contracts to ship essential cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) starting in 2019.

In addition to the Dream Chaser mini-shuttle built by Sierra Nevada Corporation of Sparks, Nevada, NASA decided to retain both of the current ISS commercial cargo vehicle providers, namely the Cygnus from Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia and the cargo Dragon from SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. Continue reading “Dream Chaser Spaceplane Gets ‘GO’ as NASA Awards Trio of Space Station Cargo Contracts”

Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center

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.

In less than two years time Boeing Starliners will start launching NASA astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) atop Atlas V rockets from Florida. Continue reading “Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center”