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NASA is ‘thrilled’ with pad abort test for Boeing’s Starliner space taxi despite parachute glitch

Alan Boyle
Two parachutes ease the descent of the Boeing-built CST-100 Starliner space taxi during an uncrewed pad abort test at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. (NASA via YouTube)

Boeing cleared a key milestone for launching NASA astronauts on its CST-100 Starliner space taxi today by executing an end-to-end test of its rocket-powered launch abort system — a test that did what it needed to do even though one of the craft’s three parachutes didn’t open.

Data from the pad abort test at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico will be fully analyzed in advance of an uncrewed Starliner mission to the International Space Station and back, currently scheduled for a Dec. 17 launch, Boeing and NASA said.

“Tests like this one are crucial to help us make sure the systems are as safe as possible,” Kathy Lueders, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, said in a news release. “We are thrilled with the preliminary results, and now we have the job of really digging into the data and analyzing whether everything worked as we expected.”

The Starliner’s four launch abort engines and attitude control thrusters ignited simultaneously to blast the spacecraft away from its test stand. The craft rose as high as 4,500 feet, then deployed its parachutes, jettisoned its service module and a heat shield, inflated a set of cushioning airbags, and touched down in the desert 95 seconds after blastoff.

Only two of the Starliner’s three parachutes opened, but NASA and Boeing said that performance was acceptable for the test parameters and for crew safety.

“We did have a deployment anomaly, not a parachute failure,” Boeing said in a statement issued after the test. “It’s too early to determine why all three main parachutes did not deploy.” (One expert observer, Scott Manley, tweeted that one of the drogue chutes apparently detached instead of pulling out its main chute.)

Boeing said it would review the parachute deployment sequence but didn’t expect any impact on the Dec. 17 launch date.

“Emergency scenario testing is very complex, and today our team validated that the spacecraft will keep our crew safe in the unlikely event of an abort,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program. “Our teams across the program have made remarkable progress to get us to this point, and we are fully focused on the next challenge — Starliner’s uncrewed flight to demonstrate Boeing’s capability to safely fly crew to and from the space station.”

The launch abort system is designed to be triggered if an emergency arises while the Starliner is sitting atop its Atlas 5 rocket on the launch pad, or during the early stages of its ascent.

The abort engines, built for Boeing by Aerojet Rocketdyne, would blast the crew away from danger and send them toward a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean. For today’s test, an instrument-laden dummy filled one of the Starliner’s seats.

During a normal mission, the Starliner would touch down on land, at the end of its parachutes with its airbags providing an extra cushion.

High-performance parachutes are among the trickiest safety elements for Boeing’s Starliner as well as for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the other commercial space taxi that’s being developed for station-bound astronauts.

After working through a series of challenges, SpaceX reported over the weekend that the Crew Dragon’s upgraded parachute has been successfully tested in single-chute mode 13 times in a row — getting the company closer to fulfilling a key requirement for the first crewed test flight. For what it’s worth, SpaceX conducted a successful pad abort test in 2015.

Like Boeing, SpaceX is aiming to fly its first crew to the International Space Station early next year. The next item on SpaceX’s list for Crew Dragon development is an uncrewed in-flight abort test, which is expected to take place by the end of this year.

Update for 2:02 p.m. PT Nov. 4: This report has been tweaked to describe the situation surrounding SpaceX’s parachutes more clearly, in light of a clarifying tweet from CEO Elon Musk:

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