WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, NM – Monday morning Boeing performed a critical pad abort test in preparation for their upcoming crewed missions but was this test a success or was it a failure?
Today I want to talk about the CST-100 Starliner which is one of two private vehicles that will soon take astronauts back to space from US soil after the end of the space shuttle program. Shortly after the space shuttle program ended NASA started contracting with private companies as part of the Commercial Crew program to fly astronauts back to the International Space Station now you may know both of these companies one of which is SpaceX with their crew Dragon capsule the other is Boeing with their CST-100 Starliner capsule. At this point both companies are very close to having their vehicles fully certified to fly astronauts but there’s still a few items they still have to check off their to-do list before they can do that. One of the critical milestones is the pad abort test which Boeing performed on Monday.
A pad abort scenario is an important demonstration for these private companies so that they can prove that their vehicle can safely pull astronauts away from the rocket while it’s still on the launch pad at an altitude of 0. A pretty recent example of something that could have used a pad abort system is none other than the SpaceX AMOS-6 mission which suffered an anomaly while fueling the rocket on the launch pad in preparation for their static fire test. This of course was just a cargo mission but the rocket that was intended to fly the AMOS-6 mission is a previous iteration of the Falcon 9 rocket which is intended to be used for the Crew Dragon capsule. This anomaly was three years ago at this point so the issues they discovered as part of this anomaly have long been rectified but had this been a Crew Dragon mission and this was actually flight time a pad abort scenario could have been engaged to pull the capsule away from the rocket. SpaceX has already performed their pad abort test for the Crew Dragon capsule, that was way back in 2015. Their capsule launched off the pad jettisoned the trunk turned around and then parachuted safely into the ocean off the coast of Cape Canaveral. Boeing however had yet to perform this test that is until Monday.
The plan for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner was pretty similar to the SpaceX test except this was performed out in the desert in the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. It would launch into the abort scenario it would then turn around while reaching a peak altitude of about 4,400 feet above ground level, it would then deploy its drogue parachutes followed by the actual three main parachutes. Starliner would then jettison its service module and then land on a set of airbags softly on the desert floor.
At first glance the test seemed pretty successful but it didn’t quite go exactly to plan. The camerawork here was enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall but aside from that you may have noticed that I said three main parachutes and clearly the Starliner Descended under only two main parachutes. This was in fact an anomaly and was not supposed to happen. From what I can see in that shaky video it seems like the Starliner correctly deployed the regular drogue parachutes followed by three smaller chutes that are designed to pull the main parachutes out of the capsule but one appears to be drifting away which tells me that it became detached and it never pulled the third main parachutes out of the capsule.
The CST-100 Starliner is required to be able to land with one parachute out of service so had this been an actual crewed mission the astronauts on board would have safely landed but was this a success? Well that depends on your definition of success. Don’t forget this was a test flight and in my opinion any test that you perform where you’re collecting data is a success no matter what the outcome is because at the end of the test you’ve likely learned something new that you didn’t know before the test. Also had this been a real pad abort scenario the astronauts would have been safely pulled away from the rocket and would have safely landed. Also a success. Does that mean that the Starliner is ready for the prime-time? Probably not. I expect that NASA is going to want some sort of analysis from Boeing on why this happened and probably some more demonstrations to make sure that this doesn’t happen again because a parachute out situation is supposed to be a rare contingency scenario, not an accepted regular occurrence. Boeing has already issued a statement stating that this anomaly will not affect their upcoming uncrewed demonstration flight to the International Space Station which is scheduled for December 17th but whether or not NASA wants to see additional demonstrations of their parachutes before they move on to crewed missions is still up in the air.
We didn’t even mention the scary looking orange gas from the hydrazine fuel systems inside the service module which intentionally crashed into the desert floor. This stuff is pretty toxic and would make getting to the astronauts very difficult, although I’m not too worried about it because a real pad abort scenario would happen near the ocean over Cape Canaveral, Florida. That means that the service module would be landing in the ocean and hopefully that toxic gas wouldn’t surround the capsule quite like this.
I do find it fascinating though that both Boeing and SpaceX have had problems with their parachute systems for independent vehicles. SpaceX has also struggled with parachutes for their crew Dragon capsule. In fact, they just recently performed an additional test on their Mark III parachute which is an upgraded design intended to resolve some of the issues that NASA had with their previous parachutes and SpaceX is still going to have to perform additional demonstrations on their parachutes before they are ready for crewed flights. Apparently this rocket science stuff is pretty hard, but parachute science! Apparently, that’s the one you got to worry about.