NASA’s commercial crew partner Boeing has achieved a key milestone on the way to actually flying astronauts aboard its CST-100 Starliner: Demonstrating that its launch pad abort system works as designed, which is a key safety system that NASA requires to be in place before the aerospace company can put astronauts inside the Starliner.
The Starliner’s demonstration mission involved starting from a standing position designed to simulate how it would be set up on top of the ULA Atlas 5 rocket during an actual crewed launch. It then activated its abort engines, which helped push the Starliner and its service module to a safe distance away from the launcher rocket. One issue is that only two out of three parachutes deployed, which will have to be investigated, but the actual fault tolerance defined by NASA here allows and anticipates that as a possibility.
The need for this system is described as a very “unlikely” scenario by Boeing and NASA, but the agency and its partners are emphasizing safety as they develop both Boeing’s and SpaceX’s new crew transportation spacecrafts.
There’s an anthropomorphic test dummy on board, loaded with sensors that will provide Boeing and NASA with all the data they need about what the abort system impact would be on an actual human sitting in that Starliner, were this an actual incident with astronauts involved. That will provide further data about how people would’ve experienced the abort, which will be key information in addition to finding out why that third parachute didn’t fire.
In December, Boeing plans to launch its first uncrewed Starliner to the ISS for the next step ahead of launching with people on board. That remains on track based on an initial interpretation of these results.