RoundupReads 10 Things to Know Before Boeing Starliner’s Second Flight Test

10 Things to Know Before Boeing Starliner’s Second Flight Test

by Catherine Ragin Williams | 2021-07-27

Aug. 4 update:

NASA and Boeing are standing down from the Aug. 4 launch attempt of the agency’s Orbital Flight Test-2 to the International Space Station as mission teams continue to examine the cause of the unexpected valve position indications on the CST-100 Starliner propulsion system. Learn more here.

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Countdown is approaching for the Boeing Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Scheduled to launch at 12:20 p.m. CDT Tuesday, Aug. 3, OFT-2 is the second uncrewed flight for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Before you organize your personal watch party and gather your family and friends, get a quick refresher on 10 things you need to know before the thrilling takeoff and test.

Rendering of Starliner docking to the International Space Station.
Rendering of Starliner docking to the International Space Station.

#1 – This Flight Was Years in the Making.

In 2014, NASA chose Boeing as one of two companies that will fly the first crews to International Space Station as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. While the company has a long history of spacecraft development and manufacturing, Starliner is the first time Boeing has been tasked with operating the entire mission, from launch to on-orbit operations, landing, recovery, and refurbishment.

#2 – No Crew Will Be Aboard, But Rosie is Along for the Ride.

Rosie the Rocketeer, Boeing’s anthropometric test device, will claim her spot once again in the commander’s seat inside the company’s Starliner spacecraft.

During OFT-1, Rosie was outfitted with 15 sensors to collect data on what astronauts will experience during flights on Starliner. For OFT-2, spacecraft data capture ports previously connected to Rosie’s 15 sensors will be used to collect data from sensors placed along the seat pallet, which is the infrastructure that holds all the crew seats in place.

Rosie the Rocketeer, Boeing’s anthropometric test device, claimed her spot once again in the commander’s seat inside the company’s Starliner spacecraft. Credits: Boeing
Rosie the Rocketeer, Boeing’s anthropometric test device, claimed her spot once again in the commander’s seat inside the company’s Starliner spacecraft. Credits: Boeing

#3 – Teamwork is Enabling Safe and Reliable Transportation for NASA.

Commercial and international partners are opening up space like never before, and recreational space travel is not far behind. While SpaceX has completed multiple crewed missions for the agency, with Crew-3 targeting launch no earlier than Oct. 31, 2021, Boeing is set to join NASA’s other commercial provider in providing crew access to low-Earth orbit.

“The progress we’re making ahead of Starliner’s next flight is laying the groundwork for safe and reliable transportation services for NASA and a variety of customers for many years to come,” said John Vollmer, Starliner’s vice president and program manager at Boeing. “With each vehicle closeout, line of code tested, and document delivered, we’re on a path to proving we have a robust, fully operational vehicle. It’s truly a team with effort with NASA and our industry partners.”

The Flight Readiness Review for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) mission was held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 22. Credita: NASA/Kim Shiflett
The Flight Readiness Review for Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test mission was held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 22, 2021. Credita: NASA/Kim Shiflett

#4 – Dress Rehearsals Aren’t Just for Theater and Dance Productions.

Back in April, NASA and Boeing completed an integrated mission dress rehearsal of the OFT-2 mission, clearing the way for the real deal on Friday.

Mission operation teams inside flight control rooms at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston commanded the simulation using actual flight procedures. The run for record began 26 hours before launch and continued through docking, space station quiescent operations, 32 hours of power-up procedures ahead of undocking, then landing and power down.

NASA astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Mike Fincke monitored every dynamic event from inside the lab using crew displays connected to the simulator. Wilmore and Fincke will fly aboard Starliner’s Crew Flight Test, along with NASA astronaut Nicole Mann. Launch control teams at Boeing’s Mission Control Center in Florida participated in the rehearsal, as well as United Launch Alliance, which supported in Houston after testing Starliner’s hardware inside its own Denver-based integration lab earlier this year.

#5 – Rosie Will Share Space with Precious Cargo.

Starliner will carry more than 400 pounds of NASA cargo and crew supplies to the space station and return to Earth with more than 550 pounds of cargo, including reusable Nitrogen Oxygen Recharge System tanks that provide breathable air to station crew members.

#6 – Landing Will Happen … on Land.

OFT-2 will demonstrate the end-to-end capabilities of the Starliner spacecraft and Atlas V rocket from launch to docking, returning to Earth in the desert of the western United States.

Flight Director Bob Dempsey explained during a recent Houston, We Have a Podcast episode, “[Starliner is] using parachutes, obviously, to slow itself down, but when it gets close to the Earth, then these airbags will inflate, and it will just basically settle down on a desert out there.”

Starliner could, theoretically, land in water, but having a landing team close to touchdown means that engineers can quickly go over and ensure everything is OK, as well as begin the process of preparing the spacecraft for its next mission.

OFT-1 lands at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico
OFT-1 lands at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Credits: Boeing

#7 – We Learned a Lot from the First Test, OFT-1, Even as it Didn’t Go According to Plan.

Boeing has worked with NASA to address all of the lessons learned from Starliner’s first flight, closing out the recommended actions developed by a joint NASA and Boeing Independent Review Team — and even those that were not mandatory — ahead of Starliner’s second uncrewed flight test.

“Obviously the most basic lesson we learned was to look at that autonomous software and make sure there was no ties to a clock or something else that could go wrong,” Dempsey said. “We learned some things like that to make it better. There was actually a lot of software review to make sure that we could be a little more robust and strong. We also learned that the vehicle was pretty robust. The propulsion system got quite a workout by that off-nominal burn that I mentioned. And, at first we were a little bit worried about it but, in hindsight, after we examined the data, it did pretty well, which gives us a lot of confidence.”

#8 – Radio Links Can Ultimately Save the Day.

The crew aboard station will have a direct command link to Starliner that serves as the ultimate failsafe in the event of an emergency with the uncrewed spacecraft. 

“Its primary function is that if the ISS crew saw something happening that did not look safe during the rendezvous, they can execute a command and say, ‘Go away, Starliner.’ On the OFT-1 mission, we were able to establish that link hundreds of kilometers apart — much farther away than we thought.”

#9 – This is Just the Beginning.

Atlas V and Starliner have been joined at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and are awaiting Friday’s launch and a days-long opportunity to demonstrate the system’s human transportation capabilities to the orbiting laboratory. The test is the last flight before the Starliner system launches American astronauts on the Crew Flight Test.

This milestone heralds a new era for the agency and its many partners, and that excitement is especially palpable for the thousands of team members contributing each step of the way.

“There’s a lot going on,” Dempsey said. “And then when you factor in all the Moon program stuff, the human lander systems that are, you know, moving very quickly to try and land humans on the Moon again in a few years … That’s what’s really neat about this time, and I think very unique. I can walk down the hallway and talk to someone who’s working on the Artemis missions, and they’re asking us, ‘OK, how did you deal with this particular problem in terms of a rocket or autonomous vehicle operations?’ Because that's what we've been doing for the last few years. And then the human lander system guys will come talk to us and say, ‘Hey, look, we’re getting into autonomous vehicles. Tell us what you’ve learned.’ And we’ll learn some stuff from them. All these different projects are going on, and it’s just an amazing time.”

#10 – How to Watch History Unfold.

Starliner will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. About 31 minutes after launch, Starliner will reach its preliminary orbit. It is scheduled to dock to the space station at 12:37 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 4.

Prelaunch activities, launch, and docking will air live on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website.

Hear more about what Dempsey has to say in the Go Starliner!” episode for Houston, We Have a Podcast.

More details about NASA’s Commercial Crew Program can be found by following the commercial crew blog@commercial_crew and commercial crew on Facebook.

Starliner is secured atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 17, 2021. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day. Credits: Boeing/John Grant
Starliner is secured atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on July 17, 2021. The spacecraft rolled out from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center earlier in the day. Credits: Boeing/John Grant

Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft is secured atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex-41 at Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on July 17, 2021. Credits: Boeing/Damon Tucci