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Starliner spacecraft back at Kennedy Space Center, investigative work begins

Boeing team will take apart spacecraft, refurbish to fly again

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. – Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft is back at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where teams are working to determine what caused a timing error during its first spaceflight last month.

The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, now named Calypso by the NASA astronauts who will fly in it, traveled from the desert of New Mexico where it landed in December back to KSC over a six-day period in January.

Now that the spacecraft is installed at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility.

Boeing team members will begin taking the spacecraft apart and analyzing data from the orbital test flight to determine what went right and what went wrong during the test flight in December.

Starliner is designed to fly astronauts for NASA as part of the Commercial Crew Program. Boeing and SpaceX have been developing capsules to carry people and have been inching their way for years toward NASA certification to fly humans.

The Starliner launched without astronauts on Dec. 22 atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral. While the launch, and later, the parachute landing were successful the spacecraft did not dock with the International Space Station as planned when a computer timing error caused the capsule to miss a critical maneuver needed to catch up to the ISS.

On Tuesday, Boeing team members were busy in the processing center preparing to take apart the spacecraft and learn from its first orbital flight.

Calypso held up very well during its first spaceflight, according to Starliner Senior operations lead Ramon Sanchez.

Ramon Sanchez, Boeing Senior Operations Lead,  speaks to reporters in front of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 15, 2020.
Ramon Sanchez, Boeing Senior Operations Lead, speaks to reporters in front of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 15, 2020. (WKMG 2020)

The spacecraft came home with the signs of spaceflight experience. Two large soot-covered stripes down the sides of the spacecraft marked a successful re-entry and landing.

“That’s all due to the re-entry and the heat that it absorbed coming back into the Earth’s atmosphere,” Sanchez said, of the thermal protection system on the exterior of the spacecraft, adding “it was designed to do this” and will require minimal refurbishing.

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 15, 2020.
Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft at Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 15, 2020. (WKMG 2020)

Boeing’s team will remove the spacecraft’s thermal covering to take a look at how the fuel systems, parachute landing system and other hardware performed during the orbital test flight.

Following the investigation, the spacecraft will be refurbished and is designed to make up to 10 spaceflights. NASA astronaut Suni Williams and Josh Cassada are set to be Calypso’s first human passengers.

Boeing is working with NASA on the investigation into the orbital test flight mishap.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said it’s too early to tell if Boeing will need to complete another uncrewed test flight before the space agency gives the go-ahead for Starliner to fly astronauts.

“Although data from the uncrewed test is important for certification, it may not be the only way that Boeing is able to demonstrate its system’s full capabilities,” Bridenstine said in a statement on Jan. 7.

Workers at Boeing’s processing facility on Wednesday were proud of the spacecraft and the history behind its purpose.

“If it was easy everybody would be sending people to orbit and it’s not and we’re going to continue to do what we do and do it well,” Sanchez said, adding that seeing Starliner fly for the first time is a highlight of his veteran engineering career.

The investigation into the orbital test flight is expected to last about two months.

“We will never fly this vehicle until it’s ready,” Sanchez said.


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