Spacecraft Team is Dancing with the Stars

Boeing Starliner undergoes rigorous testing in run-up to first flight

October 18, 2016 in Space

Starliner lifts off the ground at Kennedy Space Center. Yet the Boeing-built spacecraft—upper and lower crew module domes detached—is surrounded by a dozen watchful technicians rather than a launch pad. There is no cascading roar, just repetitive beeping from equipment easing things into place. A crane raises the top half of Starliner’s original test article in the air before gently lowering and attaching it to the bottom half inside Boeing’s production facility in central Florida, marking a milestone event for the program.

Crane operator Mike DeCarlo brings the honeycomb-pattern sections together, assisted by fellow Boeing employees operating laser devices and other guided measurement tools. The connection must be level for him to proceed. DeCarlo has to line up everything perfectly so that 216 bolts can be inserted and tightened, and then allowed to settle for three days before getting torqued a second time due to the region’s temperature and humidity factors. All of this leads to an ultra-tight fit.

In a nearby factory corner, DeCarlo also is building a Starliner seat pallet, one that can hold up to five people. He has drilled 400 holes and still has two more beams to construct. He is well-suited for this line of work—he previously processed the space shuttles between flights for 25 years and personally knows a few of the astronauts who may guide Starliner to the International Space Station, or ISS.

“I prepared Endeavour, Discovery and Atlantis for their final flights, and bolted Atlantis into place at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex,” DeCarlo said. “I love this. This has been in my blood since I got out of school. I really want to get us back up there.”

Starliner, also known as Crew Space Transportation-100, or CST-100, will make its first unmanned flight a few months prior to its first trip to the space station with astronauts at the controls in 2018. Five years in the making, the Starliner program has four vehicles in production and even more in testing in the U.S., supported by Boeing employees from coast to coast. The spacecraft are assembled in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, or C3PF, a former space shuttle hangar and engine shop that has been refurbished. Many of the engineers and technicians involved previously worked on the space shuttle.

Boeing and its legacy companies have built each previous manned American spacecraft. With its reusable capsule, which resembles the cone-like Apollo of the 1960s and ’70s, Starliner is expected to open up space travel to a wider range of people, said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew effort.

“It’s really setting the foundation for accessible travel to space, something the world hasn’t seen before,” Mulholland said. “Before it was always a government enterprise meant to serve a specific need. NASA has allowed us to service its needs, but also expand to accommodate scientists and tourists—to establish space as a destination.”

There is much to be done. In Huntington Beach, Calif., Boeing engineers will drop, shake, push and pull the Starliner test article in a controlled atmosphere to see how it responds. At New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range, a balloon will carry a boilerplate spacecraft more than seven miles into the air and release it, with Starliner deploying its parachutes and airbags to verify its performance during the final minutes of descent. In St. Louis, engineers are building a high-fidelity, fully immersive mission simulator for astronauts that will be transported early next year to Houston for use at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Astronauts and flight directors already are getting to take the Starliner for test drives in the Space Training, Analysis and Review Facility and the Jake Garn Training Facility with Boeing-developed training systems.

Two or more Starliners will be built for actual space travel, with each capable of making up to 10 trips to and from the ISS. Others will be used only for testing. SpaceX’s competing Crew Dragon spacecraft, initially geared to carry cargo to the space station, and Starliner share similar compact-sized capsule shapes. The difference is that the Boeing spacecraft will be the first U.S. capsule to return on land rather than in the ocean.

To read the full story, visit the October 2016 issue of Boeing Frontiers.