Boeing, SpaceX Continue to Make Progress on Crew Vehicles

Administrator Charles Bolden stands next to Boeing's CST-100 capsule at Langely Research Center. (Credit: NASA)
Administrator Charles Bolden stands next to Boeing’s CST-100 capsule at Langely Research Center. (Credit: NASA)

By Steven Siceloff,
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Hundreds of engineers and technicians with NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX have ramped up to complete the final designs, manufacturing, and testing as they continue the vital, but meticulous work to prepare to launch astronauts to the International Space Station.

Halfway through the pivotal 2016 year, the companies building the next generation of human-rated spacecraft and launch vehicles are testing systems in more demanding, flight-like environments. Boeing and SpaceX are manufacturing the systems that will return America’s human launch capability, while they simultaneously build and modify launch facilities, and complete mission simulators. All while continuing to test and refine their designs, and analyze the results to ensure they are meeting NASA’s requirements.

“We knew 2016 would be a critical year as Boeing and SpaceX build qualification and flight hardware, and test the integrated systems to ensure the rockets and spacecraft function as designed,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Their careful design, analysis and early prototype testing during the last several years has put us on the right course, and now we are excited to see flight hardware coming together. The companies are excited, too, but we know there are many steps ahead to successfully and safely complete these flight tests and begin operational missions to the International Space Station.”

Boeing is building the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which will launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rockets.

“Our spacecraft design is in firm configuration, teams are conducting about one component qualification test per week and Starliner crew and service modules are coming together in Florida,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Programs. “It’s an exciting time to be a part of American human spaceflight and we’re looking forward to our first flight in 2017.”

SpaceX is independently building its Crew Dragon to launch on the company’s Falcon 9 rockets from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“There’s a lot of work to do, and we’re making great progress,” said Benjamin Reed, director of Commercial Crew Mission Management at SpaceX. “We’re excited to return America’s crew carrying capability and are on track to complete a number of important milestones on the path to flying astronauts next year.”

The systems that will go into each spacecraft – such as avionics, flight computers, life support, communications and numerous others – are being tested individually and in complex networks to make sure they don’t interfere with each other.

A pool at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia was the site for simulated contingency water landings for Boeing’s Starliner. The testing enabled Boeing and NASA engineers to evaluate the capsule’s six perimeter airbags and uprighting capabilities. Starliner missions will normally land on land, so the same Starliner mockup will be dropped at another Langley facility to qualify the vehicle for land landings.

Later this year, Boeing will test parachute components to be used on Starliner flights, in a series of progressively more flight-like drop tests, including high-altitude boilerplate releases from balloons.

SpaceX has begun a campaign of parachute tests in which weight simulators with Crew Dragon parachutes and connectors are dropped from airplanes to determine their deployment behavior. Engineers use the results to feed computer models that can evaluate different deployment conditions and indicate whether the hardware will work as designed in a host of flight conditions, including aborts. The tests will continue throughout this year and next, growing more complex and verifying the safety and reliability of the system.

Boeing’s reaction control system thrusters – the small jets that maneuver the spacecraft in orbit – and the launch abort engines that would push a Starliner and its crew out of danger in an emergency also are being prepped for qualification tests before the systems are installed for flights. Simultaneously, a 12-foot-long, 600-plus-pound Starliner/Atlas V wind tunnel model equipped with hundreds of sensors is providing engineers with high-fidelity dynamic and static pressure data the vehicle will experience during ascent.

Once the 2016 work has been completed, NASA and its partners will stand on the verge of conducting the first human-rated spaceflights to launch from American soil in six years. The teams at NASA, Boeing and SpaceX understand that the finish line for development is near, but they are keeping a close eye on every detailed step along the way.