Boeing to Move Up Service Modules for Commercial Crew Flight Tests

On July 29, 2021, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket rolled out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.
On July 29, 2021, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket rolled out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Starliner will launch on the Atlas V for Boeing’s second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Photo credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

Following extensive testing and analysis of oxidizer isolation valves on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner service module propulsion system, Boeing has decided to move up service modules currently in production for its upcoming uncrewed and crewed flight tests to the International Space Station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The service module originally planned for its Crew Flight Test (CFT) will now be used for the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission, and the service module planned for the Starliner-1 flight will be used for CFT.

“NASA has been working side-by-side with Boeing on the service module valve investigation, including leveraging the agency’s materials and propellants expertise to better characterize the potential causes of the issue,” said Steve Stich, manager, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “Because of the combined work, we have a much better understanding of the contributors that led to the valve issues, and ways to prevent it from happening in the future. Boeing remains diligent and driven by the data during its decision making, which is key to ensuring the Starliner system is ready when we fly our test missions in 2022.”

Ongoing investigation efforts continue to validate the most probable cause to be related to oxidizer and moisture interactions. NASA and Boeing will continue the analysis and testing of the initial service module on which the issue was identified leading up to launch of the uncrewed OFT-2 mission in August 2021.

“Our objective was to get back to flight safely and as soon as possible. With this objective in mind, we set out on parallel paths: remediating valves to preserve the option of utilizing the existing service module (SM2), while also working to accelerate the build of the next service module (SM4),” said John Vollmer, vice president and program manager, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “Based on the results to date we’ve decided to fly SM4 next and continue longer term tests with SM2 hardware, on the vehicle and in offline facilities.”

Teams conducted extensive analysis on the valves in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and outside laboratories. That analysis included testing samples of the corrosion, using specialized micro CT scans and borescopes to see inside the valves, exposing parts of valves to various conditions, and removing and disassembling several valves.

“I am incredibly proud of the entire NASA and Boeing team for their creativity and technical excellence while working this investigation,” Stich said.

Testing is continuing at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility to expose the valves to conditions similar to those that the spacecraft experienced inside the factory and at the Atlas V launch pad and Vertical Integration Facility prior to the last launch attempt.

Testing has already taken place on the former CFT, now OFT-2, service module to ensure the health of the hardware. The team will also apply preventative remediation efforts to this service module to prevent similar issues from occurring. The team is now working through next steps for removing and replacing the service module.

“The members of the combined team are consummate professionals, who continue to safely and systematically troubleshoot and safe the wet propellant system,” said Vollmer. “I’m very proud of their resolve.”

NASA, Boeing, United Launch Alliance and the Eastern Range continue to assess potential launch windows for OFT-2. As part of the standard process for requesting a launch slot on ULA’s manifest in the first half of 2022, Boeing has agreed to an open window in May, pending spacecraft readiness and space station availability. Potential launch windows for CFT are under review.

More details about the mission and NASA’s commercial crew program can be found by following the commercial crew blog@commercial_crew and commercial crew on Facebook.

NASA to Secure Additional Commercial Crew Transportation

NASA insignia.NASA intends to issue a sole source modification to SpaceX to acquire up to three additional crew flights to the International Space Station as part of its Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities (CCtCap) contract. The additional crew flights allow NASA to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. capability for human access to the space station.

In October, NASA issued a request for information from American industry capable of providing safe, reliable, and cost-effective human space transportation services to and from the International Space Station to ensure a continuous human presence aboard the microgravity laboratory.

After a thorough review of the near-term certified capabilities and responses from American industry, NASA’s assessment is that the SpaceX crew transportation system is the only one certified to meet NASA’s safety requirements to transport crew to the space station, and to maintain the agency’s obligation to its international partners in the needed timeframe.

“It’s critical we begin to secure additional flights to the space station now so we are ready as these missions are needed to maintain a U.S. presence on station,” said Kathy Lueders, associate administrator, NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate. “Our U.S. human launch capability is essential to our continued safe operations in orbit and to building our low-Earth orbit economy.”

NASA anticipates a potential need to use any additional flights as early as 2023 to maintain mission readiness. Securing additional flights now also allows NASA to continue working with Boeing on the development of the company’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which also will fly NASA and international partner astronauts to and from the space station after completing its certification effort.

“NASA commends Boeing for its ongoing investigation of the oxidizer isolation valve issue that was discovered ahead of the planned uncrewed Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to the International Space Station in August, prioritizing safety over schedule while working to solve this challenge,” said Phil McAlister, director, commercial spaceflight at NASA. “NASA and Boeing will provide additional updates on the status of Starliner’s next mission as we work through the investigation and verification efforts to determine root cause and effective vehicle remediation.”

NASA continues to have a need for two unique crew capabilities to ensure dissimilar redundancy, maintain safe space station operations, and allow each company to work through any unforeseen issues that could arise as private industry builds operational experience with these new systems. NASA’s plan is still to alternate missions between SpaceX and Boeing, once both are operational.

The current sole source modification does not preclude NASA from seeking additional contract modifications in the future for additional transportation services as needed.

NASA also is working to extend the life of the space station beyond 2024 to allow for a seamless transition to commercially operated, low-Earth orbit destinations and allow NASA to continue its vital scientific research to prepare for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit to benefit life on Earth. NASA continues to anticipate a need for crew transportation into the foreseeable future as the agency enables a low-Earth orbit economy.

In 2014, NASA awarded the CCtCap contracts to Boeing and SpaceX through a public-private partnership as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Under CCtCap, NASA certifies that a provider’s space transportation system meets the agency’s requirements prior to flying missions with astronauts. After years of development, commercial crew systems have achieved or are nearing operational readiness for regular crewed missions, including providing a lifeboat capability, to the space station.

For more than 20 years, NASA has continuously had astronauts living and working aboard the International Space Station, advancing scientific knowledge and demonstrating new technologies, making research breakthroughs not possible on Earth. As a global endeavor, 249 people from 19 countries have visited the unique microgravity laboratory that has hosted more than 3,000 research and educational investigations from researchers in 109 countries and areas.

The station is a critical testbed for NASA to understand and overcome the challenges of long-duration spaceflight and to expand commercial opportunities in low-Earth orbit. As commercial companies focus on providing human space transportation services and developing a robust low-Earth orbit economy, NASA is preparing for human exploration of the Moon and Mars.