SpaceX Completes Crew Dragon Static Fire Tests

Today, SpaceX completed a series of static fire engine tests of the Crew Dragon spacecraft in advance of an in-flight launch escape demonstration, known as the In-Flight Abort Test.

The engine tests, conducted near SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, began with two burns for a duration of one-second each for two of Crew Dragon’s 16 Draco thrusters. The Draco thrusters are used for on-orbit maneuvering and attitude control, and would also be used for re-orientation during certain in-flight launch escapes. Following these initial Draco thruster burns, the team completed a full-duration firing for approximately nine seconds of Crew Dragon’s eight SuperDraco engines. The SuperDraco engines are designed to accelerate Dragon away from the F9 launch vehicle in the event of an emergency after liftoff.

In quick succession, immediately after the SuperDracos shut down, two Dracos thrusters fired and all eight SuperDraco flaps closed, mimicking the sequence required to reorient the spacecraft in-flight to a parachute deploy attitude and close the flaps prior to reentry. The full sequence, from SuperDraco startup to flap closure, spanned approximately 70 seconds.

In April, during a similar set of engine tests, the spacecraft experienced an anomaly which led to an explosion and loss of the vehicle. In the following months, an Anomaly Investigation Team made up of SpaceX and NASA personnel determined that a slug of liquid propellant in the high-flow helium pressurization system unexpectedly caused a titanium ignition event resulting in an explosion. Based on that investigation’s findings and months of testing, SpaceX redesigned components of the system to eliminate the possibility of slugs entering the high-flow pressurization system.

Today’s tests will help validate the launch escape system ahead of Crew Dragon’s in-flight abort demonstration planned as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. SpaceX and NASA will now review the data from today’s test, perform detailed hardware inspections, and establish a target launch date for the In-Flight Abort Test.

OFT Mission Taking Shape at Space Launch Complex 41

A Centaur upper stage is lifted at the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 8, 2019.
A Centaur upper stage is lifted at the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Nov. 8, 2019, for mating to the United Launch Alliance Atlas V first stage in preparation for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT). The uncrewed OFT mission will rendezvous and dock Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft with the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Starliner will launch atop the Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket set to launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on its maiden voyage to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is ready for the mating of Starliner to the top of the launch vehicle.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V first stage is lifted to the vertical position on Nov. 4, 2019, in the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V first stage is lifted to the vertical position on Nov. 4, 2019, in the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

On Monday, Nov. 4, the Atlas V’s first stage was lifted to the vertical position inside the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, followed by the mating of two solid rocket boosters to the booster. ULA teams then attached the Centaur upper stage and launch vehicle adapter atop the Atlas V first stage.

Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission will rendezvous and dock the Starliner spacecraft with the space station. OFT will help set the stage for Boeing’s Crew Flight Test (CFT), which will carry NASA astronauts Michael Fincke and Nicole Mann, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson to the space station and return them safely home.

As aerospace industry providers Boeing and SpaceX begin to make regular flights to the space station, NASA will continue to advance its mission to go beyond low-Earth orbit and establish a human presence on the Moon with the ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.

NASA and Boeing Discuss Preliminary Pad Abort Test Results

On Thursday, Nov. 7, Boeing Commercial Crew Vice President and Program Manager John Mulholland and NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager Kathy Lueders addressed preliminary results of the Nov. 4 CST-100 Starliner Pad Abort Test during a media teleconference.

Preliminary results indicate that the test, conducted from Launch Complex 32 at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, met NASA’s primary test objectives:

  • Validated the launch abort system’s capability to perform a safe abort
  • Safely separated CST-100 from a static launch vehicle adapter on the launch pad
  • Validated the launch abort system’s capability to propel Starliner safely to a target point to avoid re-contact with any potential debris or other pieces of hardware
  • Demonstrated stability and control characteristics of the launch abort system
  • Safely separated the crew module from the service module during the abort sequence
  • Deployed landing and recovery system to execute a controlled land landing
  • Validated functionality of guidance, navigation & control and command & data handling system for appropriate sequencing of commands to the propulsion controllers

During the test, two of three of Starliner’s main parachutes deployed and eased Starliner to the ground. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety. Boeing has determined that the parachute anomaly occurred because the rigging between one of the three pilot and main parachutes was improperly connected. Boeing has verified this through closeout photos, and understands how this happened on a test vehicle. The company is validating that its processes were followed correctly on its Orbital Flight Test vehicle, which is targeted to launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 17.

NASA is encouraged by the preliminary results of the Pad Abort Test and remains committed to working in concert with Boeing to ensure crew safety as we move to return astronauts to the International Space Station from U.S. soil.

Boeing’s Starliner Pad Abort Test Complete

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner’s airbags inflate in preparation for landing in the New Mexico desert in the company’s Pad Abort Test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Image credit: NASA TV
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters ignite in the company’s Pad Abort Test, pushing the spacecraft away from the test stand with a combined 160,000 pounds of thrust, from Launch Complex 32 on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters ignite in the company’s Pad Abort Test.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner Pad Abort Test is complete. The test began at 9:15 a.m. EST (7:15 a.m. MST) with ignition of the vehicle’s launch abort engines and orbital maneuvering and attitude control system, concluding a short time later with touchdown on a cushion of airbags.

The test was designed to verify that each of Starliner’s systems will function not only separately, but in concert, to protect astronauts by carrying them safely away from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency prior to liftoff. During the test, Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and altitude control thrusters fired to push the spacecraft approximately 1 mile above land and 1 mile north of the test stand.

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner lands in the New Mexico desert in the company’s Pad Abort Test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner lands in the New Mexico desert in the company’s Pad Abort Test for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Image credit: NASA TV

Boeing’s next mission, called Orbital Flight Test, will launch an uncrewed Starliner spacecraft to the station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. Launch is targeted for Dec. 17.

For more information, read the news release at https://go.nasa.gov/2PKrTxB.

New T-0 for Pad Abort Test: 9:15 a.m. EST, 7:15 a.m. MST

Teams at Launch Complex 32 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico have adjusted the Pad Abort Test time to 9:15 a.m. EST (7:15 a.m. MST).

The Pad Abort Test is Boeing’s first test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership with the American aerospace industry to launch astronauts to the International Space Station on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil for the first time since 2011.

The test is designed to verify that each of Starliner’s systems will function not only separately, but in concert, to protect astronauts by carrying them safely away from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency prior to liftoff.

Boeing Pad Abort Test to air live on NASA TV

Tune in to NASA TV and the agency’s website at 8:50 a.m. EST today to follow live coverage of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner Pad Abort Test from Launch Complex 32 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The test is scheduled for 9 a.m. EST with a three-hour test window. Coverage will be adjusted as necessary within the window.

The Pad Abort Test is Boeing’s first test flight for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a public-private partnership with the American aerospace industry to launch astronauts to the International Space Station on American rockets and spacecraft from American soil for the first time since 2011.

The test is designed to verify that each of Starliner’s systems will function not only separately, but in concert, to protect astronauts by carrying them safely away from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency prior to liftoff.

Boeing Starliner Spacecraft to Demonstrate Critical Launch Pad Abort Capability

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and its service module sit atop the test stand at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico ahead of the company’s Pad Abort Test. The test is scheduled for Nov. 4, 2019.
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and its service module sit atop the test stand at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico ahead of the company’s Pad Abort Test. The test is scheduled for Nov. 4, 2019, and will demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to quickly escape the launch pad in the event of an emergency on launch day. Photo credit: Boeing

Boeing is preparing to put its CST-100 Starliner’s launch abort system to the test on Monday, Nov. 4, at Launch Complex 32 on White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The test, scheduled to begin at 7 a.m. MST (9 a.m. EST) with a three-hour window, will demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to quickly escape the launch pad in the event of an emergency on launch day. This will be Boeing’s first flight test as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and will help evaluate the performance of the abort system prior to missions to the International Space Station with a crew onboard.

For the demonstration, Starliner and its service module will be resting on the test stand when a zero-zero abort is declared. This means the 16.5-foot vehicle is in the launch position at zero altitude and traveling zero miles an hour. The flight test begins with ignition of Starliner’s four launch abort engines (LAE), pushing the spacecraft away from the stand with a combined 160,000 pounds of thrust. The orbital maneuvering and attitude (OMAC) thrusters kick in simultaneously with LAE ignition to maneuver the spacecraft into the proper orientation for parachute deployment. The vehicle is expected to reach an altitude of about 4,500 feet above the ground, and push about 7,000 feet (about 1 mile) north of the test stand.

The ascent cover and forward heat shield protecting the spacecraft’s parachutes will jettison roughly 19 seconds into flight in preparation for landing. Then, drogue parachutes will deploy, prior to the main parachutes, slowing the descent of the vehicle.

After the parachutes open, the service module will separate from the crew module, followed by the base heat shield. Finally, airbags will inflate, and Starliner will touch down in the New Mexico desert approximately one-and-a-half minutes after the test began. The spacecraft service module, which has a total of 52 engines including those designed to give small directional changes in orbit, is not planned or expected to survive the test.

The zero-zero abort scenario is especially challenging because the spacecraft abort system must quickly get away from a potentially dangerous rocket, but also must gain enough altitude and distance for the parachutes to open and landing systems to be activated.

The abort test will provide Boeing and NASA with reams of data to help evaluate and verify the performance of the vehicle’s abort systems – a critical capability for NASA’s certification of Starliner to fly astronauts to station.

Although Boeing’s abort test does not have to be completed prior to the company’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the space station, it is a major milestone ahead of the first flight of the new system with astronauts, called Crew Flight Test.

NASA and its commercial partners, Boeing and SpaceX, are working toward returning the capability to launch American astronauts to the space station and low-Earth orbit on American-built spacecraft from American soil.

Boeing Target Flight Dates

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner prepares for electromagnetic interference and electromagnetic contamination (EMI/EMC) testing in a specialized test chamberNASA and Boeing continue to evaluate flight dates to deliver realistic schedules to the public and both have agreed on the following target dates:

  • Boeing Pad Abort Test: Nov. 4, 2019 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
  • Boeing Orbital Flight Test: Dec. 17, 2019 at Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida

NASA and its commercial partners remain committed to flying astronauts as quickly as we can without compromising crew safety, and we always will give safety precedence over schedule.  As more dates are reviewed, NASA will update its schedule.

NASA, SpaceX Test Pad Emergency Egress System

NASA and SpaceX conduct a formal verification of the company's emergency escape system on Sept. 18, 2019 at Launch Complex 39A.
NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, in front, and Bob Behnken participated in the exercise to verify the crew can safely and quickly evacuate from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency before liftoff of SpaceX’s first crewed flight test, called Demo-2. During the escape verification, Walker and Behnken pass through the water deluge system on the 265-foot level of the crew access tower. Photo credit: SpaceX

NASA and SpaceX conducted a formal verification of the company’s emergency escape, or egress, system at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida on Sept. 18, 2019. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Shannon Walker participated in the exercise to verify the crew can safely and swiftly evacuate from the launch pad in the unlikely event of an emergency before liftoff of SpaceX’s first crewed flight test, called Demo-2.

At tower level on the pad, Walker and Behnken practiced loading into a slidewire basket and simulating an emergency escape to ground level.
At tower level on the pad, Walker and Behnken practiced loading into a slidewire basket and simulating an emergency escape to ground level. Photo credit: SpaceX

“This demonstration allowed all the various teams responsible for ground operations, system design, ground safety and emergency management to observe and verify the system is ready for operational use,” said Steve Payne, launch operations integrator for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. “It’s a system we hope we never have to use, but we have to be prepared for every scenario.”

During the exercise, Behnken and Walker demonstrated two escape methods to show the crew could leave the 265-foot-level of the launch tower quickly. One method was an expedited non-emergency egress, where the crew started at the end of the crew access arm, called the white room, as if they just exited the capsule, and descended the crew access tower by taking the elevator to the base of the launch pad. Then, they were picked up by the pad team to be returned to crew quarters.

The other method involved an emergency egress, where the crew and pad team started at the crew access arm and escape to the ground using the slidewire baskets, with all alarms and fire suppression systems activated. From there, they boarded an armored vehicle that took them to safety.

“Safety of crew members is the top priority,” Walker said. “This was a great opportunity to test the emergency egress system and procedures on the pad.”

SpaceX provided a demonstration of activating alarms and beacons, putting on emergency breathing air bottles and activating the water deluge system on the crew access level, followed by egress from the white room. The astronauts also practiced loading into the baskets. The release mechanisms were also tested, and a weighted empty basket was sent down the length of the slidewire cable to the landing area.

The slidewire baskets have had a number of design improvements since they were used during the shuttle era. A new braking system was added that regulates the speed as astronauts descend the slidewire, which makes for a smoother ride for the crew.  Adjustments to the system have also made dismounting the slidewire baskets much easier than with the previous design.

Also, the platform used for emergency escape on the tower was relocated and reinstalled to the 265-foot-level, up 70 feet from its original shuttle-era location, in order to accommodate a taller launch vehicle.

“If the emergency egress system were ever to be needed to escape from a hazardous event, we want to have complete confidence that it will operate as designed and get our flight crew and pad personnel off the tower quickly and safely,” Payne said.

The verification team also included personnel from the Astronaut Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA Flight Surgeons, SpaceX systems engineers, Kennedy Aero Medical, Commercial Crew Program Safety, and other observers.

“Each time today when we headed down the crew access arm, I couldn’t help but think about what it will be like to strap into Dragon on launch day,” Behnken said. “It’s exciting to have this verification test behind us on our way to the SpaceX Demo-2 mission.”

As commercial crew providers SpaceX and Boeing begin to make regular flights to the space station, NASA will continue to advance its mission to go beyond low-Earth orbit and establish a human presence on the Moon with the ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.