Boeing moves closer to crewed spaceflights with Starliner pad abort test

Boeing's Starliner crew capsule just completed a successful test of its pad abort system.
Image: NASA

Boeing conducted a pad abort test with its CST-100 Starliner crew capsule on Monday. The spacecraft blasted off from Launch Complex 32 at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

NASA aired the critical safety test live on NASA TV. The space agency’s Public Affairs spokesperson Dan Huot and Jessica Landa from Boeing Communications provided commentary throughout the broadcast. Ahead of the launch, Landa explained that the test evaluates the “end-to-end functionality” of Starliner’s pad abort system.

The spacecraft lifted off at 9:15 a.m. ET on Monday and the capsule’s short flight only lasted 95 seconds.

Abort Test Success

Starliner’s most recent test is a crucial part of ensuring human passenger safety. Officials needed to confirm that the capsule can carry astronauts to safety if any dangerous anomaly occurs during the launch.

“That was phenomenal,” Landa said during the livestream. “Initial indication is we’ve had a very successful pad abort test today.”

Today’s liftoff marks the first major test flight for the CST-100. NASA’s Commercial Crew program shared a video of the test on Twitter. The space agency notes that “Lots of data analysis is ahead, but we are one step closer to flights with crew!”

The capsule carried an anthropomorphic test dummy during Monday’s maneuver. Boeing engineers hope to evaluate test data via the “passenger’s” built-in sensors.

After launching, Starliner reached a speed of 650 mph in just five seconds. Meanwhile, onboard engines fired on and off over 10 seconds to blast the capsule away from the launch pad and a simulated malfunctioning rocket.

Next, the spaceship oriented itself before a series of parachutes deployed in three pulses. The first of which released two drogue parachutes. Three pilot parachutes followed while the third phase deployed two of the capsule’s three main parachutes.

According to Landa, opening two “main” chutes is “acceptable within our landing sequence.” Finally, a set of airbags opened to cushion the CST-100’s desert floor landing.

Starliner’s Flight Crew Celebrates Milestone Flight

Last year, an anomaly occurred during pre-test preparations for Boeing’s Starliner abort system test, Ars Technica reported. Therefore, Starliner’s successful first flight gave Boeing, NASA, and the flight crew a reason to celebrate.

NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann will join Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson on Starliner’s inaugural crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). All three team members witnessed the abort test firsthand. The trio spoke with Huot and Landa after the test.

NASA Commercial Crew shared a video clip of Fincke’s reaction on Twitter.

Overall, Fincke was pleased with both the launch and the subsequent landing sequence. He told Landa, “We hope we never need to use this system. We know after today’s test, we’ll be able to get off safely and come back and try another day.”

He added that the test shows that “Boeing is committed to safety,” and that he’s “really looking forward to flying on a safe spacecraft.”

Mann shared Finke’s enthusiasm about their future spaceflight, which Boeing hopes will happen next year. “It’s starting to feel really close, it’s amazing, especially being here for the test,” she said during NASA’s live broadcast. “Big milestones like the test today are just showing that we’re getting a lot closer.”

Impending Crewed Spaceflights

Current ISS residents recently celebrated the orbiting lab’s 19th anniversary. All of the current crew members flew to the station at different times via a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

As its milestone 20th anniversary approaches, it would be wonderful to honor the occasion by finally sending astronauts to the ISS from American soil.

Like SpaceX, Boeing is teaming up with NASA’s Commercial Crew program to launch astronauts into space from the U.S. Both companies are pushing hard to fly a crew to the ISS sometime next year.

SpaceX launched an uncrewed Dragon capsule to the space station last March. The following month, a capsule exploded during an engine test fire. Despite the setbacks, SpaceX is pushing forward by running training exercises with the Crew Dragon astronauts.

Meanwhile, Boeing made an important first step towards its first crewed Starliner flights with today’s test. However, the aerospace firm must do more critical testing before sending humans into orbit. According to a report, Boeing aims to send its own uncrewed Starliner capsule to the ISS on December 17.