Boeing suffers setback as Starliner’s pad abort test goes sour

Posted Jul 23, 2018 by Karen Graham
Development of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner crew capsule hit a snag late last month during preparations for testing of its launch abort system at a test site in White Sands, New Mexico.
Boeing s 1st CST-100 Starliner capsule comes together in prep for commercial crew.
Boeing's 1st CST-100 Starliner capsule comes together in prep for commercial crew.
Photo Credit: Boeing
Ars Technica was the first to report on the anomaly that occurred after a successful hot-fire test of the launch-abort engines on an integrated service module at the White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico in June.
After publishing a short report on Saturday, Boeing provided additional information about the problem. According to Boeing, the hot-fire test successfully ran for the full duration, but during engine shutdown, an "anomaly occurred that resulted in a propellant leak."
"We have been conducting a thorough investigation with assistance from our NASA and industry partners," the statement said. "We are confident we found the cause and are moving forward with corrective action. Flight safety and risk mitigation are why we conduct such rigorous testing, and anomalies are a natural part of any test program."
The fuel leak issue
Quartz was able to describe in detail what went on. The crew capsule is equipped with four small rocket engines built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, mounted on the bottom of the spacecraft on the "service module" The service module has all the infrastructure needed to support the crew inside the spacecraft.
In May, the crew capsule was brought to the White Sands facility for the tests that would demonstrate its ability to carry the crew members away from the spacecraft in case of an emergency. Well, in June Boeing reported a leak in the fuel system that showed up after the test firing.
According to Quartz, hydrazine is the fuel used in the rocket engines. However, it reacts violently when exposed to certain catalysts. And while this allows engineers to design a fairly simple, compact engine, hydrazine itself is extremely toxic and volatile.
Boeing has talked to NASA officials and say they have a working solution to the problem rather than a need to significantly rework the Starliner spacecraft itself. But the company did not provide an update to how this issue might affect testing of the Starliner going forward, reports The Verge.
A critical test
Tests of the abort system always generate a lot of interest simply because they are critical to an astronaut's safety in the event of a catastrophic problem. For Boeing, it is even more critical because they do not plan to conduct an in-flight abort test of the Starliner abort system.
Earlier this year, Chris Ferguson, the director of Starliner crew and mission systems, explained how the launch pad abort test in New Mexico would work. "We'll go out there in the May, June time frame," Ferguson said. "We'll do a full-up test, a mile elevation and about a mile downrange. Let the whole vehicle go through its sequence of launch, adjust the attitude to the proper tail-first attitude, deploy the forward heat shield, the drogue, the chutes, separate the service module, and let the whole vehicle come down to an Earth landing. Normally, a pad abort would be a water landing, but we want to recover and reuse that spacecraft."
The above video, provided by Boeing on its website in mid-April, shows the Starliner test-flight vehicle to be used for the test was still under construction inside the company's spacecraft factory at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There have been no further updates.
On May 6, SpaceX's Crew Dragon passed its Pad Abort Test. Crew Dragon’s abort system is powered by eight SuperDraco engines, each of which produces about 15,000 pounds of thrust. The engines are integrated directly into the sides of the vehicle rather than carried on top of the vehicle as with previous launch abort systems.
Crew Dragon pad abort test on May 6  2018.
Crew Dragon pad abort test on May 6, 2018.
This unique configuration provides astronauts escape capability from the launch pad all the way to orbit and allows the spacecraft to use the same thrusters to land propulsively on land at the end of a mission.
Boeing's future in Space
Right now, Boeing is still setting its sights on a pad abort test by the end of this summer, well before the two uncrewed test flights of the Starliner spacecraft, tentatively scheduled for the end of the year. But this is not all that Boeing is working on.
Artist Concept: Space Launch System in Flight.
The SLS is an advanced  heavy-lift rocket that will p...
Artist Concept: Space Launch System in Flight. The SLS is an advanced, heavy-lift rocket that will provide an entirely new capability for science and human exploration beyond Earth’s orbit.
The company has already involved with NASA and the Space Launch System (SLS), having been chosen as the Core Stage prime contractor. The work is going on at two sites fairly close to each other at the Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans.
According to NASA, the engine section is still the critical path for completion and remains the biggest challenge, with most of the parts, propellant lines, and wiring going into it. Work is now going on around the clock to finish the stage for delivery by the end of the year or early 2019.