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

Shuttle Duo Nose-to-Nose Rendezvous highlights Retirement Duty

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To see one shorn shuttle is bad enough. Seeing two NASA space shuttles edged together and voluntarily gutted of their spaceflight capability for lack of Federal Government funding in the prime of their lives is beyond sad.

Two of NASA’s trio of space shuttle orbiters – Discovery & Endeavour – switched locations at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on August 11, moving them further down the path to eternal retirement and public exhibit at their future homes in museums. That’s far afield from their intended purpose to soar as spaceships of exploration to the High Frontier.

Space Shuttles Discovery and Endeavour swap locations ahead of nose-to nose rendezvous at KSC on Aug. 11. Discovery is pulled out of the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB, left) as Endeavour is towed out of Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-1, right). The two NASA shuttles switched places to continue the transition to retirement. Credit: Ken Kremer (kenkremer.com)

Discovery and Endeavour briefly met in a matchless nose-to-nose configuration for a roadside photo opportunity between the humongous Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and the processing hanger – dubbed the Orbiter Processing Facility – where the orbiters are prepared for flight.

Space Shuttle’s Discovery and Endeavour swapped places at KSC so that technicians could resume preparations towards the transition and retirement of shuttle Discovery – the first of NASA’s orbiters to be officially withdrawn from active duty spaceflight service.

First, Discovery was backed out of temporary storage from a high bay inside the VAB. Then Endeavour was towed out of Orbiter Processing Facility-1. Technicians then maneuvered the orbiters to a rendezvous point in between on the ground. Just imagine how grand this vista would have appeared in space.

Discovery and Endeavour approach roadside rendezvous point at KSC on Aug. 11. Discovery departs the VAB (left) as Endeavour departs OPF-1 (right) on the road to permanent retirement. Credit: Ken Kremer

At last Discovery and Endeavour met for the truly sad nosy encounter of gaping holes where the forward reaction control thrusters once fired to meticulously maneuver the shuttles in orbit. Protective plastic sheeting meant to shield the empty thruster bay from FOD – or Foreign Object Debris – was in tatters and whipping wildly in the wind almost from the moment Discovery emerged from the VAB.

The rear ends of both orbiters looked like the main engines had been sawed off. Both orbiters have been stripped of their trio of mighty space shuttle main engines (SSME’s) and duo of bulbous Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS’s) pods for months of decommissioning work.

Discovery was then pulled into the Orbiter Processing Facility-1 (OPF-1) where the next step is to extract even more of her guts, namely the Auxiliary Power Units (APU’s) and associated systems for “safing” over the coming months. In April 2012, Discovery is scheduled to depart KSC forever and be flown off for permanent public display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Discovery and Endeavour at roadside rendezvous at KSC. Credit: Mike Deep

Endeavour was towed into the VAB for storage until October, when she will be moved into OPF-2 for further work to ready her for public display at the California Science Center in Los Angles sometime next summer.

Atlantis is next on the chopping block. And America retains zero indigenous capability for human spaceflight.

The situation likely won’t change for at least several years until one of the commercial providers launches a human rated “space taxi” to low earth orbit.

Read my continuing features here about Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis

Shuttle workers with shuttle tribute banners. Credit: Mike Deep
Perpendicular shorn shuttles at KSC. Credit: Mike Deep

Stripped Down Discovery rolls towards Retirement at Kennedy Space Center

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Space Shuttle Discovery was briefly on public display on Wednesday July 13 as she emerged from the hanger at the Kennedy Space Center where she has been undergoing processing for retirement since her final landing on the STS-133 mission.

It was a rather stark and sad moment because Discovery looked almost naked and downtrodden – and there was no doubt that she would never again fly majestically to space because huge parts of the orbiter were totally absent.

Discovery was stripped bare of her three main engines and orbital maneuvering pods at the rear and she had a giant hole in the front, just behind the nose, that was covered in see through plastic sheeting that formerly housed her now missing forward thrusters. Without these essential components, Discovery cannot move 1 nanometer.

When the Space Shuttle is forcibly retired in about a week, America will have no capability to launch astronauts into space and to the International Space Station for many many years to come.

Discovery was pulled a quarter mile from the Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF) to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to make room for Space Shuttle Atlantis when she returns next week from the STS-135 mission, according to Stephanie Stilson, the flow manager for Discovery, in an interview with Universe Today.

Stephanie Stilson,NASA KSC flow manager for Discovery. Credit: Ken Kremer

STS-135 is the 135th and final mission of NASA’s 30 year long Space Shuttle Program.

NASA now only has control of two of the three shuttle OPF’s since one OPF has been handed over to an unnamed client, Stilson said.

Stilson is leading the NASA team responsible for safing all three Space Shuttle Orbiters. “We are removing the hypergolic fuel and other toxic residues to prepare the orbiters for display in the museums where they will be permanently housed.”

“The safing work on Discovery should be complete by February 2012,” Stilson told me. “NASA plans to transport Discovery to her permanent home at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum on April 12, 2012, which coincides with the anniversary of the first shuttle launch on April 12, 1981.”

Discovery Photo Album by Ken Kremer

Discovery emerges from OPF 2 processing hanger. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery exits OPF 2 minus main engines. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery moves from OPF 2 to VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery moves from OPF 2 to VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery on public display on Wednesday July 13. Credit: Ken Kremer
Below Discovery’s wing. Credit: Ken Kremer
Gaping hole in Discovery - minus forward reaction control thruster. Credit: Ken Kremer
Rear view of Discovery beside VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery entering the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery enters the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Viewing Discovery from the 5th Floor of the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer
Discovery parked on the ground floor of the VAB. Credit: Ken Kremer