Boeing aced the crew escape test of its Starliner spacecraft this morning, with the pod earmarked to eventually take astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond demonstrating NASA’s vital safety system. The test is designed to simulate a launch pad emergency, shifting the Starliner away from the Atlas V launch rocket to keep the human occupants inside safe.
Clearly that’s not something NASA or anybody else wants to have to test out for real, but it’s an important consideration nonetheless. Considering an Atlas V carries more than a million pounds of propellant across its various stages, that’s not something an astronaut would want to be nearby should a problem occur.
The pad abort test is a little less dramatic than that would be. The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lifts off – in an unscrewed state – from a test stand, in this case at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. By firing its launch abort engines, of which there are four, along with several of its orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters, it mustered 190,000 pounds of thrust.
In fact, it flew nearly a mile in shy of 20 seconds, before the Starliner’s forward heat shield and parachute were deployed. That’s a process designed to rapidly move the spacecraft away from the rocket itself.
Near 34 seconds into the test, the crew module separated from the service module. The former is gradually lowered on parachutes, while the latter is designed to crash down in free fall. At just over a minute into the overall test, the base heat shield of the spacecraft is separated away, and then air bags reply from the base to cushion its landing.
95 seconds after firing the abort engines, the whole test was complete as the Starliner safely touched down on the ground.
It’s the first time that all of the individual systems have been activated in a single test, after Boeing has worked on them individually. The crew module will be recovered, assessed, and then hopefully cleared for reuse. Eventually, the goal is to use each crew module up to 10 times.
This isn’t the only spacecraft safety testing result we’ve seen today. Earlier on, SpaceX announced that it had successfully trialed its Mark 3 parachute system – which helps lower a Dragon capsule to the ground – for the 13th time. This time around, one of the four parachutes was intentionally not deployed, to simulate what might happen should a problem occur.
SpaceX put Dragon through its crew escape test back in 2015. The capsule is designed to be eased down on parachutes into the Atlantic Ocean should an issue arise.