Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft passes by the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, Nov. 21, making its way to the Space Launch Complex 41 Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. At the pad, Starliner will be secured atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in preparation for Boeing’s uncrewed Orbital Flight Test to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
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.
“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.
The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket that will launch Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner on the Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program emerged on Thursday from the production factory in Decatur, Alabama for transport in a giant cargo ship to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The rocket, known as AV-082, will launch Starliner and its crew of NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann, and Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson to the station following the spacecraft’s maiden voyage, the uncrewed Orbital Flight Test targeted for August.
From the manufacturing facility in Decatur, Alabama, the Atlas V booster stage and Dual Engine Centaur upper stage were moved down the road for loading into the Mariner vessel docked nearby. The 312-foot-long ship is purpose-built to navigate both shallow waters of rivers and ocean travel to reach ULA’s launch sites. It has been making the trek from Decatur to Cape Canaveral since 2001.
Once at Cape Canaveral, the Atlas V will begin integrated operations and processing for the CFT launch.
NASA selected Boeing and SpaceX to transport crew to the space station from the United States, returning the nation’s human spaceflight launch capability. These integrated spacecraft, rockets and associated systems will carry up to four astronauts on NASA missions.
Regular commercial transportation using Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to and from the station will enable expanded station use and additional research time aboard the orbiting laboratory. Research on the space station helps address the challenges of moving humanity forward to the Moon and Mars as we learn how to keep astronauts healthy during long-duration space travel and demonstrate technologies for human and robotic exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.