Take a Load Off

Starliner structural testing complete

February 11, 2019 in Space

At Boeing’s test facility in Huntington Beach, Calif., a team of engineering and lab test technicians completed structures testing on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner. The two year test series was designed to prove the Starliner spacecraft will keep crews safe during repeated missions to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

Teams conducted testing on a Structural Test Article (STA) while the flight worthy spacecraft was built in parallel at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

This test series was a complex and challenging endeavor for the vehicle itself and the team that had to reconfigure it over and over again for pressure testing, modal testing, loads testing, shock testing, separation performance testing and model validation.

Each test was demanding in terms of planning, setup and execution. For example, vibrational testing on the STA required specific frequencies, which meant setting up about 750 accelerometers at various points on the vehicle to measure its reaction. “Knowing how the STA reacts to those vibrations is critical, as it tells us whether it will maintain control during travel to and from space, and during docking with the ISS,” said Boeing Test & Evaluation Test Leader Robert Bauer.

Boeing Lab Test experts from other locations also came in to support the work, which led to innovation. “By pulling in test experts from the wider BT&E team, we developed some unique instrumentation and have done things people have never done before,” Bauer said.

On the more dynamic side, the team conducted numerous ordinance-activated tests – essentially, mini pyrotechnic events – to prove critical components such as the parachutes, ascent cover, forward heat shield and service module deploy or separate as expected.

In all, the team collected several billion points of data for the program engineers to verify the Starliner's design or, in some cases, improve it.

“We learned a great deal about our vehicle,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “We can now confidently say that the Starliner will safely and robustly handle every dynamic phase of flight, from launch and ascent through re-entry and landing.”