Musk Drops Propulsive Landing Plans for SpaceX Crew Dragon

SpaceX is dropping its original plans to propulsively ground land the advanced crewed version of their Dragon spacecraft planned for missions carrying astronauts returning from the International Space Station (ISS) – in a decision that potentially impacts future plans for Mars landings as well.

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Boeing Unveils Blue Spacesuits for Starliner Crew Capsule

Boeing has unveiled the advanced new lightweight spacesuits that astronauts will sport as passengers aboard the company’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi during commercial taxi journey’s to and from and the International Space Station (ISS) and other low Earth orbit destinations. The signature ‘Boeing Blue’ spacesuits will be much lighter, as well as more flexible and […]

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Stairway to Heaven! – Boeing Starliner Crew Access Arm’s ‘Awesome’ Launch Pad Installation

A crane lifts the Crew Access Arm and White Room for Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft for mating to the Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on Aug. 15, 2016.  Astronauts will walk through the arm to board the Starliner spacecraft stacked atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

CAPE CANAVERAL AIR FORCE STATION, FL — A new ‘Stairway to Heaven’ which American astronauts will soon stride along as “the last place on Earth” departure point aboard our next generation of human spaceships, was at long last hoisted into place at the ULA Atlas rocket launch pad on Florida’s Space Coast on Monday Aug 15, at an “awesome” media event witnessed by space journalists including Universe Today.

“This is awesome,” Chris Ferguson, a former shuttle commander who is now Boeing’s deputy program manager for the company’s Commercial Crew Program told Universe Today in an exclusive interview at the launch pad – after workers finished installing the spanking new Crew Access Arm walkway for astronauts leading to the hatch of Boeing’s Starliner ‘Space Taxi.’

Starliner will ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS) as soon as 2018.

“It’s great to see the arm up there,” Ferguson elaborated to Universe Today. “I know it’s probably a small part of the overall access tower. But it’s the most significant part!”

“We used to joke about the 195 foot level on the shuttle pad as being ‘the last place on Earth.”

“This will now be the new ‘last place on Earth’! So we are pretty charged up about it!” Ferguson gushed.

Under hot sunny skies portending the upcoming restoration of America’s ability to once again launch American astronauts from American soil when American rockets ignite, the newly constructed 50-foot-long, 90,000-pound ‘Crew Access Arm and White Room’ was lifted and mated to the newly built ‘Crew Access Tower’ at Space Launch Complex-41 (SLC-41) on Monday morning, Aug. 15.

“We talked about how the skyline is changing here and this is one of the more visible changes.”

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew capsule stacked atop the venerable United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket at pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida will launch crews to the massive orbiting science outpost continuously soaring some 250 miles (400 km) above Earth.

Space workers, enthusiasts and dreamers alike have been waiting years for this momentous day to happen. And I was thrilled to observe all the action firsthand along with the people who made it happen from NASA, United Launch Alliance, Boeing, the contractors – as well as to experience it with my space media colleagues.

“All the elements that we talked about the last few years are now reality,” Ferguson told me.

Attaching the access arm is vital and visual proof that at long last America means business and that a renaissance in human spaceflight will commence in some 18 months or less when commercially built American crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX take flight to the heavens above – and a new space era of regular, robust and lower cost space flights begins.

It took about an hour for workers to delicately hoist the gleaming grey steel and aluminum white ‘Stairway to Heaven’ by crane into place at the top of the tower – at one of the busiest launch pads in the world!

It’s about 130 feet above the pad surface since it’s located at the 13th level of the tower.

The install work began at about 7:30 a.m. EDT as we watched a work crew lower a giant grappling hook and attach cables. Then they carefully raised the arm off the launch pad surface by crane. The arm had been trucked to the launch pad on Aug. 11.

The tower itself is comprised of segmented tiers that were built in segments just south of the pad. They were stacked on the pad over the past few months – in between launches. Altogether they form a nearly 200-foot-tall steel structure.

Another crew stationed in the tower about 160 feet above ground waited as the arm was delicately craned into the designated notch. The workers then spent several more hours methodically bolting and welding the arm to the tower to finish the assembly process.

Indeed Monday’s installation of the Crew Access Arm and White Room at pad 41 basically completes the construction of the first new Crew Access Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station since the Apollo moon landing era of the 1960s.

“It is the first new crew access structure at the Florida spaceport since the space shuttle’s Fixed Service Structures were put in place before Columbia’s first flight in 1981,” say NASA officials.

Overall the steel frame of the massive tower weighs over a million pounds. For perspective, destination ISS now weighs in at about a million pounds in low Earth orbit.

Construction of the tower began about 18 months ago.

“You think about when we started building this 18 months ago and now it’s one of the most visible changes to the Cape’s horizon since the 1960s,” said Ferguson at Monday’s momentous media event. “It’s a fantastic day.”

The White Room is an enclosed area at the end of the Crew Access Arm. It big enough for astronauts to make final adjustments to their suits and is spacious enough for technicians to assist the astronauts climbing aboard the spacecraft and get tucked into their seats in the final hours before liftoff.

“You have to stop and celebrate these moments in the craziness of all the things we do,” said Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, at the event. “It’s going to be so cool when our astronauts are walking out across this access arm to get on the spacecraft and go to the space station.”

The Crew Access Arm was built by Saur at NASA’s nearby off site facility at Oak Hill.

And when Starliner takes flight it will hearken back to the dawn of the Space Age.

“John Glenn was the first to fly on an Atlas, now our next leap into the future will be to have astronauts launch from here on Atlas V,” said Barb Egan, program manager for Commercial Crew for ULA.

Boeing is manufacturing Starliner in what is officially known as Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida under contract with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a CCP commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program since its inception in 2010 is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

Furthermore when the Boeing Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon become operational the permanent resident ISS crew will grow to 7 – enabling a doubling of science output aboard the science laboratory.

This significant growth in research capabilities will invaluably assist NASA in testing technologies and human endurance in its agency wide goal of sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s with the mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion deep space capsule concurrently under full scale development by the agency.

The next key SLS milestone is a trest firing of the RS-25 main engines at NASA Stennis this Thursday, Aug. 18 – watch for my onsite reports!

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

When will Ferguson actually set foot inside the walkway?

“I am hoping to get up there and walk through there in a couple of weeks or so when it’s all strapped in and done. I want to see how they are doing and walk around.”

How does the White Room fit around Starliner and keep it climate controlled?

“The end of the white room has a part that slides up and down and moves over and slides on top of the spacecraft when it’s in place.”

“There is an inflatable seal that forms the final seal to the spacecraft so that you have all the appropriate humidity control and the purge without the Florida atmosphere inside the crew module,” Ferguson replied.

Boeing and NASA are targeting Feb. 2018 for launch of the first crewed orbital test flight on the Atlas V rocket. The Atlas will be augmented with two solid rocket motors on the first stage and a dual engine Centaur upper stage.

How confident is Ferguson about meeting the 2018 launch target?

“The first crew flight is scheduled for February 2018. I am confident.” Ferguson responded.

“And we have a lot of qualification to get through between now and then. But barring any large unforeseen issues we can make it.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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1st Boeing Starliner Hull Assembled as 1st Crew Flight Delays to 2018

The first Boeing CST-100 Starliner hull is bolted together by technicians working in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on May 2 for  the Structural Test Article pressure vessel.  Credit: Boeing

As completion nears for the prototype of Boeing’s first Starliner astronaut taxi, the firm announced a slip into 2018 for the blastoff date of the first crewed flight in order to deal with spacecraft mass, aerodynamic launch and flight software issues, a Boeing spokesperson told Universe Today.

Until this week, Boeing was aiming for a first crewed launch of the commercial Starliner capsule by late 2017, company officials had said.

The new target launch date for the first astronauts flying aboard a Boeing CST-100 Starliner “is February 2018,” Boeing spokeswoman Rebecca Regan told Universe Today.

“Until very recently we were marching toward the 2017 target date.”

Word of the launch postponement came on Wednesday via an announcement by, Boeing executive vice president Leanne Caret at a company investor conference.

Boeing will conduct two critical unmanned test flights leading up to the manned test flight and has notified NASA of the revised schedule.

“The Pad Abort test is October 2017 in New Mexico. Boeing will fly an uncrewed orbital flight test in December 2017 and a crewed orbital flight test in February 2018,” Regan told me.

Previously, the uncrewed and crewed test flights were slated for June and October 2017.

The inaugural crew flight will carry two astronauts to the International Space Station including a Boeing test pilot and a NASA astronaut.

“Boeing just recently presented this new schedule to NASA that gives a realistic look at where we are in the development. These programs are challenging.”

“As we build and test we are learning things. We are doing everything we can to make sure the vehicle is ready and safe – because that’s what most important,” Regan emphasized.

Indeed engineers just bolted together the upper and lower domes of Boeings maiden Starliner crew module last week, on May 2, forming the complete hull of the pressure vessel for the Structural Test Article (STA).

Altogether there are 216 holes for the bolts. They have to line up perfectly. The seals are checked to make sure there are no leaks, which could be deadly in space.

Starliner is being manufactured in Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida.

The STA will be subjected to rigorous environmental and loads testing to prove its fitness to fly humans to space and survive the harsh extremes of the space environment.

Regan cited three technical factors accounting for the delayed launch schedule. The first relates to mass.

“There are a couple of things that impacted the schedule as discussed recently by John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager of Space Exploration.”

“First is mass of the spacecraft. Mass whether it’s from aircraft or spacecraft is obviously always something that’s ins’de the box. We are working that,” Regan stated.
The second relates to aerodynamic loads which Boeing engineers believe they may have solved.

“Another challenge is aero-acoustic issues related to the spacecraft atop the launch vehicle. Data showed us that the spacecraft was experiencing some pressures [during launch] that we needed to go work on more.”

Starliners will launch to space atop the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from pad 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

“The aerodynamic acoustic loads data we were getting told us that we needed to go do some additional work. We actually now have a really viable option that we are testing right now in a wind tunnel this month.”

“So we think we are on the right path there. We have some design options we are looking at. We think we found a viable option that’s inside the scope of where we need to be on those aerodynamic acoustics in load.”

“So we will look at the data from the new wind tunnel tests.”

The third relates to new software requirements from NASA for docking at the ISS.

“NASA also levied some additional software requirements on us, in order to dock with the station. So those additional software requirements alone, in the contract, probably added about 3 months to our schedule, for our developers to work that.”

The Boeing CST 100 Starliner is one of two private astronaut capsules – along with the SpaceX Crew Dragon – being developed under a commercial partnership contract with NASA to end our sole reliance on Russia for crew launches back and forth to the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is to restore America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS, as soon as possible.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

Since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program in 2011, the US was been 100% dependent on the Russian Soyuz capsule for astronauts rides to the ISS at a cost exceeding $70 million per seat.

Due to huge CCP funding cuts by Congress, the targeted launch dates for both Starliner and Crew Dragon have been delayed repeatedly from the initially planned 2015 timeframe to the latest goal of 2017.

The structural Test Article plays a critical role serving as the pathfinder vehicle to validate the manufacturing and processing methods for the production of all the operational spacecraft that will follow in the future.

Although it will never fly in space, the STA is currently being built inside the renovated C3PF using the same techniques and processes planned for the operational spacecraft that will carry astronaut crews of four or more aloft to the ISS in 2018 and beyond.

“The Structural Test Article is not meant to ever fly in space but rather to prove the manufacturing methods and overall ability of the spacecraft to handle the demands of spaceflight carrying astronauts to the International Space Station,” says NASA.

The STA is also the first spacecraft to come together inside the former shuttle hangar known as an orbiter processing facility, since shuttle Discovery was moved out of the facility following its retirement and move to the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Washington, D.C., in 2012.

“It’s actually bustling in there right now, which is awesome. Really exciting stuff,”Regan told me.

Regan also confirmed that the completed Starliner STA will soon be transported to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California for a period of critical stress testing that verifies the capabilities and worthiness of the spacecraft.

“Boeing’s testing facility in Huntington Beach, California has all the facilities to do the structural testing and apply loads. They are set up to test spacecraft,” said Danom Buck, manager of Boeing’s Manufacturing and Engineering team at KSC, during a prior interview in the C3PF.

“At Huntington Beach we will test for all of the load cases that the vehicle will fly in and land in – so all of the worst stressing cases.”

“So we have predicted loads and will compare that to what we actually see in testing and see whether that matches what we predicted.”

NASA notes that “the tests must bear out that the capsules can handle the conditions of space as well as engine firings and the pressure of launch, ascent and reentry. In simple terms, it will be shaked, baked and tested to the extreme.”

Lessons learned will be applied to the first flight test models of the Starliner. Some of those parts have already arrived at KSC and are “in the manufacturing flow in Florida.”

“Our team is initiating qualification testing on dozens of components and preparing to assemble flight hardware,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Programs, in a statement. “These are the first steps in an incredibly exciting, important and challenging year.”

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Buildup Of First Boeing Starliner Crew Vehicle Ramps Up at Kennedy Space Center

View of upper dome and newly attached crew access tunnel of the first Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ crew  spaceship under assembly at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.   This is part of the maiden Starliner crew module known as the Structural Test Article (STA) being built at Boeing’s refurbished Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) manufacturing facility at KSC. Numerous strain gauges have been installed for loads testing. Credit: Ken Kremer /kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Buildup of the first of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew spaceships is ramping up at the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) – the new spacecraft manufacturing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

In less than two years time Boeing Starliners will start launching NASA astronauts to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS) from Florida.

‘Starliner’ was recently unveiled as the new name for Boeing’s CST-100 commercial crew vehicle during the Sept. 2015 Grand Opening of the C3PF production site, the renovated servicing hanger which previously prepared NASA’s space shuttle orbiters for flight.

This maiden test version of ‘Starliner’ is known as the structural test article and plays a critical role serving as the pathfinder vehicle to validate the manufacturing and processing methods for the production of all the operational spacecraft that will follow in the future and eventually carry astronauts aloft to the space station.

The structural test article, also known as the STA, is currently being built inside the C3PF using the same techniques and processes planned for the operational spacecraft that will carry astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said Danom Buck, manager of Boeing’s Manufacturing and Engineering team at KSC, during a media tour in December which included Universe Today.

Components for the STA began arriving earlier this year, including the largest pieces such as the upper and lower domes of the Starliner crew command module as well as the crew access tunnel and the tunnel adapter.

I visited the Starliner STA vehicle up close in the C3PF during my media visits to observe the manufacturing progress first hand, as its coming together over time.

“We are very excited and having a lot of fun,” Buck told Universe Today during an interview in the C3PF. “Everyone loves the fact that there is real space hardware back in this facility again.”

Since the facilities Grand Opening three months ago, significant progress has been made assembling the STA crew and service modules.

“The lower and upper domes comprise the primary structure of the crew module,” Buck explained. “Dome assembly is complete and the tunnel has been attached.”

“Since September, the tunnel, seal and domes are all mechanically fastened together.

They are sealed surfaces with no welds whatsoever, using matched drill holes and gaskets. The tunnel to the upper dome is sealed with a Parker Gasko seal and about 100 fasteners that hold it down, along with four anodized longerons and another 100 matched drill holes. All the work is done with very tight tolerances,” Buck told me.

“The next phase is to outfit the STA with the mass simulators for items like propulsion, tanks, batteries, etc. We are also attaching about 1000 strain gauges with 1600 channels of data to the lower and upper domes.” See photos.

Starliner is built with alot of unique technology as well as heritage hardware.

“Both of the domes were built with weldless technology,” Buck elaborated. “The upper and lower domes will be bolted together.

“So it’s been evolutionary from our days on the Delta 2, 3 and 4 rocket programs, where we made spun formed domes for the propulsion tanks. So iteratively we’ve been making the largest spun formed domes in the world. And these are the latest iteration.”

Among the lessons learned during development was to construct the domes from a different alloy to make them lighter weight alloy.

“The change in alloys gave about 100 pounds saving in weight off the domes,” Buck stated. That’s a big deal because every pound of savings is converted into up mass.

After STA assembly is complete at KSC, it will be transported to California for a period of critical stress testing that verifies the capabilities and worthiness of the spacecraft.

“We put it together and ship it out to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California for testing. They have all the facilities to do the structural testing and apply loads. They are set up to test spacecraft.”

“At Huntington Beach we will test for all of the load cases that the vehicle will fly in and land in – so all of the worst stressing cases.”

“So we have predicted loads and will compare that to what we actually see in testing and see whether that matches what we predicted.”

What is the assembly schedule for the STA?

“The STA will be completed in early 2016,” says John Mulholland Boeing Vice President, Commercial Programs.

“Then we start assembly of the Qualification Test Article.”

Boeing has already begun to receive initial components for the Qual Test Article, which will eventually be outfitted to fly crews to space.

Although the STA will never fly to space, it will be used by Boeing prove the effectiveness of the Starliner escape system and to conduct a pad abort test.

“We learn along the way and then work on the next unit,” Buck told Universe Today.

“The Qualification Test article should be nearly completed by around the middle of next year [2016].”

Starliner is being developed under contract with NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) with the goal of restoring America’s capability to launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil to the ISS in 2017.

The Starliner also counts as one of history’s first two privately developed ‘Space Taxis’ destined to carry humans to space – along with the Crew Dragon being simultaneously developed by SpaceX – under NASA’s commercial crew initiative.

Boeing was awarded a $4.2 Billion contract in September 2014 by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden to complete development and manufacture of the CST-100 Starliner space taxi under the agency’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) program and NASA’s Launch America initiative.

It is also a key part of NASA’s overarching strategy to send Humans on a “Journey to Mars” in the 2030s.

NASA started CCP back in 2010 to foster the development of a new US human rated spacecraft. The goal was to create a low cost, safe and reliable vehicle to transport astronauts to the ISS. And the program is finally coming to fruition with critically needed budget support from the US Congress that will keep the vehicles on track and prevent further launch delays.

Earlier this month Congress at last agreed to fully fund the Obama Administrations CCP funding request in the recently passed 2016 omnibus bill that fund s the entire Federal government through this September – as outlined in my story here.

The Starliner STA is rapidly taking shape in the CC3P hanger building previously known as Orbiter Processing Facility-2 (OPF-3) and utilized by NASA to process the agency’s space shuttle orbiters between crewed flights during the three decade long Space Shuttle program.

The CST-100 ‘Starliner’ is at the forefront of ushering in the new era of commercial space flight that will completely revolutionize how we access, explore and exploit space for the benefit of all mankind.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Boeing Rejects Aerojet-Rocketdyne Bid for ULA and Affirms Vulcan Rocket Support, Lockheed Martin Noncommittal

Boeing has officially and publicly rejected a bid by Aerojet-Rocketdyne to buy rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA), which the firm co-owns with rival aerospace giant Lockheed-Martin. Furthermore Boeing affirmed support for ULA’s new next generation Vulcan rocket now under development, a spokesperson confirmed to Universe Today. Aerojet-Rocketdyne, which supplies critical rocket engines powering ULA’s […]

Construction of Crew Access Tower Starts at Atlas V Pad for Boeing ‘Starliner’ Taxi to ISS

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Restoring America’s human path back to space from US soil kicks into high gear at last as construction starts for the new crew access tower on the Atlas V launch pad that will soon propel Americans astronauts riding aboard the commercially developed Boeing CST-100 ‘Starliner’ taxi to the Earth-orbiting International […]

Congressional Slashes to NASA Commercial Crew Force Bolden to ‘Buy Russian’ rather than ‘Buy American’

In the face of drastic funding cuts by the US Congress to NASA’s commercial crew program (CCP) aimed at restoring America’s indigenous launch capability to fly our astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is being forced to spend another half a billion dollars for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft instead […]

NASA Names Four Astronauts for First Boeing, SpaceX U.S. Commercial Spaceflights

NASA today (July 9) named the first four astronauts who will fly on the first U.S. commercial spaceflights in private crew transportation vehicles being built by Boeing and SpaceX, marking a major milestone towards restoring American crew launches to U.S. soil as soon as mid-2017, if all goes well. The four astronauts chosen are all […]

Genesis of ULA’s New Vulcan Rocket Borne of Fierce Commercial and Political Pressures: Interview

Fierce commercial and international political pressures have forced the rapid development of the new Vulcan launcher family recently announced by rocket maker United Launch Alliance (ULA). Vulcan’s “genesis” and development was borne of multiple unrelenting forces on ULA and is now absolutely essential and critical for its “transformation and survival in a competitive environment” moving […]