Boeing unveils a new name and a new processing facility for its CST-100 commercial spaceships. Image credit: Michael R. Brown for Sen

Sep 15, 2015 Boeing sets up Starliner assembly plant in Florida

Sen—With last week’s official opening of a spaceship assembly plant at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the 100-year-old Boeing Company launches a new chapter aimed at expanding commercial flight services to space.

In a gleaming, spacious hangar where NASA once processed space shuttle engines, pieces of Boeing’s newly named Starliner CST-100 are coming together for tests intended to pave the way toward the start of commercial flights to the International Space Station in December 2017.

“We’re coming into a different phase (of the program), with design activity rolling to completion. The focus is now turning to manufacturing and then integrated testing,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s Commercial Crew Programs, told reporters in Cocoa Beach in advance of the opening of Boeing’s new Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF).

The first vehicle out the doors will be the Starliner structural test article, which will be sent to Boeing’s facility in Huntington Beach, California, for a year of tests to determine how well it withstands the aerodynamic, structural and other environmental impacts of routine flight, as well as potential unexpected situations.

The structural test article’s service module is expected to be completed early next year, with the crew module to follow mid-year. The pieces will then be put together, with testing of the integrated vehicle slated to begin in May.

Production in Florida will then turn to the Starliner qualification vehicle, which will be used for another series of tests in California, then returned to Florida to be prepared for a pad abort test from White Sands, New Mexico, in August 2017.

Initially, Boeing scheduled the pad abort test, which is intended to demonstrate how astronauts could fly to safety during a launch accident, for January 2017. However, managers delayed the test seven months after deciding to refurbish and reuse the qualification vehicle for the flight. The move added some flexibility to the schedule in case the qualification testing uncovers technical issues that need to be addressed.

Unlike SpaceX, which is developing a crewed version of its Dragon cargo ship for space station taxi flights, Boeing does not plan to conduct a second, inflight abort test.

“If you look at the technology advancements that we’ve had, where we have uncertainty in any of those environments is really at very low altitudes,” Mulholland told Sen.

“With wind tunnel tests, it’s hard to get those aerodynamic loads simulated well for the low altitude, but as you move up in altitude and your velocity goes up, there’s very good characterization (with wind tunnel testing), very strong ability for us to adequately understand vehicle controllability and loads for an inflight abort.

“To certify (the vehicle) for an inflight abort, we break up (the ascent profile) into 10-second increments, and we have to show that we have 95 percent survivability—with a 90 per cent confidence level—over an entire range of potential vehicle initial conditions. It’s literally hundreds and thousands of data points that you need to adequately analyze and certify your vehicle to,” Mulholland said.

“We looked at the benefit of doing an inflight abort test. You would have it at a single point in the trajectory … so you get one confidence test of your inflight system, but it doesn’t really buy down the entire risk. Our philosophy and our plan was to do additional wind tunnel testing so we could understand the controllability of the vehicle through all of the different potential perturbations that you might face in an inflight abort situation.

“We don’t run a test just to go run a test,” Mulholland added. “We make sure we fully understand all the requirements that we need to certify to, and then pick the best approach to do that.”

Boeing plans to build three operational Starliners, each of which will be certified to fly 10 times. After the pad abort test, the qualification vehicle will be refitted to serve as an operational spacecraft. The second Starliner will be used for the program’s first unmanned test flight, targeted for May 2017, then put into operational service. The third Starliner’s debut will be a crewed test flight in September 2017. 

If all goes as planned, the first group of NASA astronauts will ride a Starliner to the space station in December 2017.

“Everything is just moving along extremely well,” Mulholland said.

Things could get even more interesting for Boeing if it wins a second NASA contract to fly cargo to the station, work currently performed by privately owned SpaceX and Orbital ATK (formerly Orbital Sciences). Both firms are recovering from launch accidents and expect to resume station cargo runs before the end of the year.

NASA has delayed awarding a follow-on Commercial Resupply Services, which also drew bids from Sierra Nevada Corp., and from Lockheed Martin Corp. Contracts are now due to be announced in November, the agency’s procurement website shows.

“We hope to be selected for cargo flight vehicle,” Mulholland said. “We’ve looked at our facility capability (in Florida) to make sure we have enough production room. That looks real good. We’ll be able to incorporate those cargo flights into our manifest.”

In the long run, Boeing says it will take more than station crew taxi flights—and possible cargo runs—to build a commercial space transportation business.

As a starting point, Boeing is partnering with Space Adventures to sell spare seats aboard its Starliner missions to the space station. Space Adventures has brokered rides for seven fare-paying tourists to fly on Russian Soyuz capsules to the station.

“We have the ability. We would like to fly a paying passenger,” Mulholland said. “We think it adds a lot of value to NASA and to the public, but it’s really going to depend on NASA’s needs.”

NASA expects to fly four station crewmembers at a time aboard Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon. Both capsules are designed to hold up to seven people, or a mix of passengers and cargo. “If NASA doesn’t need that amount of cargo weight on a flight, that gives us room to fly a paying passenger,” Mulholland said.

Beyond the space station, Starliners could fly to privately owned orbiting outposts, such as Bigelow Aerospace’s planned B-330 habitats.

“Look at how much aviation has changed in 100 years,” said John Elbon, Boeing vice president and general manager for space exploration. “In 1911 it would have been very difficult to envision a 787 (Boeing Dreamliner jet.) … I think commercial space is at a point like that now. We’re just on the cusp of something incredible. It’s hard to imagine all the things that will be happening over the next 100 years, but I think it will be as dramatic and as unpredictable as the difference between that first transcontinental flight and where we are today.”

For more images from the event see Sen's Boeing CST-100 gallery.