Boeing, SpaceX press towards commercial crew test flights this year

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Boeing expects to carry out a pad abort test for its CST-100 Starliner commercial crew vehicle in early November, followed by an uncrewed orbital flight test in mid-December, a company executive said Oct. 8.

During a panel session of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs for Boeing’s space exploration business unit, said the company was targeting a Dec. 17 launch of its Starliner vehicle on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 from Cape Canaveral.

That mission, called the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) by Boeing, will send the Starliner to the International Space Station, docking with the station and remaining there for about a week before undocking and landing at one of several locations in the western United States. Mulholland said that if the mission launches as currently scheduled, the landing would most likely be at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Boeing had planned to fly OFT earlier this year, but announced in April it was delaying the launch, then scheduled for May, until later in the summer because of a tight schedule and a conflict with another Atlas 5 launch.

Since then, Mulholland said in an interview here that the company had worked through some technical issues with the spacecraft that he described as “normal learning” with the spacecraft, and not more serious issues, like problems with the propulsion system in the spacecraft’s service module encountered last year. “There were a few little final discoveries that you only get on those final integrated tests,” he said.

The Starliner for OFT is in the final stages of assembly, with only a couple major components, like a heat shield, yet to be added. Mulholland said the spacecraft should be fully assembled as soon as this weekend, after which there will be additional tests and fueling before it’s transported to Space Launch Complex 41 to be integrated with the Atlas.

Mulholland was confident that, barring major problems, the company could make its scheduled launch in mid-December. “We’ve got a pretty decent chunk of margin to the 17th,” he said. That date, he said, is being coordinated with both the Eastern Range for launch and NASA for ISS operations, with few conflicts expected through the rest of the month.

Prior to the OFT, Boeing expects to carry out a Starliner pad abort test from White Sands. In that test, currently scheduled for Nov. 4, the Starliner will use its abort thrusters to launch off the ground, simulating the ability to escape a malfunctioning booster on the pad. Mulholland said that the capsule will fly about 1.5 kilometers high and a similar distance downrange, landing about 90 seconds after liftoff.

Final preparations for the test are well underway, with the Starliner spacecraft completed and currently being fueled. Mulholland said Boeing had about a week of margin in its schedule leading up to the Nov. 4 test. “I finally feel pretty good about where we are on that.”

SpaceX prepares for in-flight abort

SpaceX, meanwhile, is gearing up for its own abort milestone, an in-flight test one where a Crew Dragon spacecraft will launch on a Falcon 9 and separate from the booster during ascent to test the ability of the capsule to escape the rocket in maximum dynamic pressure conditions.

Benji Reed, director of commercial crew mission management at SpaceX, said both the Crew Dragon spacecraft and its Falcon 9 booster are now in Florida for final preparations. He didn’t give an estimated launch date for the mission, but SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted Oct. 8 that he expected that flight to take place in late November or early December.

The spacecraft used for the in-flight abort test was originally built for the Demo-2 crewed test flight, but moved to this test when the spacecraft originally planned for the test was destroyed during preparations for a static-fire test in April. “The static-fire anomaly investigation is almost complete,” Reed said, “with mitigations that have been identified and already incorporated into the vehicles.”

Another major issue for SpaceX has been development of parachutes. Reed said that the company has completed more than 25 parachute tests. “We continue to do many more,” he said. The results of the tests, shared with NASA and others in the “parachute community”, will result in the “most advanced parachutes” in the industry.

Musk, in another Oct. 8 tweet, said he spent last weekend with Airborne Systems, which is developing an advanced parachute called Mark 3 that will be used on Crew Dragon. The new parachute, he wrote, “provides [the] highest safety factor for astronauts.”

The status of Crew Dragon development will be the major topic of discussion for Musk and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine when Bridenstine visits SpaceX’s headquarters Oct. 10. Bridenstine last month criticized SpaceX for not appearing to put enough attention on its commercial crew work just before Musk provided an update on the company’s development of its next-generation Starship vehicle.

“We had to reallocate some resources to speed this up,” Musk wrote of commercial crew work. He estimated that all the hardware needed for the Demo-2 crewed test flight should be in Florida, and all other testing complete, by around mid-December. Neither he nor NASA, though, have set a date for that test, which will fly NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS.

At the ISPCS panel, both Mulholland and Reed said they would not fly crewed missions until they’re convinced it is safe enough to do so. “We’re going to do this together” with NASA, Reed said. “We’ll fly when we know we can take Bob and Doug up and bring them home safely.”

They are, though, aware of schedule pressures. “We need to maintain the International Space Station and its research capabilities,” Mulholland said. “We need to get there, and we understand the necessity of getting there, but getting there right outweighs all that.”