Rocket launches are amazing. Certainly in person, even on TV or a computer monitor, a launch is loud, bright, and special. So set an alarm for 1:15pm EST time Tuesday. That’s five minutes before Boeing sends its Starliner capsule into orbit for a second time.
The Chicago-based company is paying for this second test mission to orbit and docking with the International Space Station because of mistakes during the first test. Basically, the capsule didn’t get the right communication of mission run-time, from the rocket that was taking it to space.
JENGA PRE-FLIGHT TESTS
Boeing admitted that it never ran a “fully-integrated simulation” before that first mission. It was a surprising admission that followed the post OFT1 (Orbital Test Flight 1) independent investigation.
What does that mean? Imagine a game of Jenga where players stack all the blocks to create a tall tower. Then, one at a time, they pull out a block hoping there is no failure leading to the Jenga tower tumbling down.
What Boeing did before the first test flight was to take all the blocks and build several small towers. Boeing put two or three systems in one small tower, four others in another small tower. All those small towers were fully tested in simulations. But, crucially, Boeing never stacked all those small towers on top of each other and ran one “full tower” simulation.
The lead-up to this second test was much different, according to former NASA astronaut and now Boeing Executive Chris Ferguson. He told reporters last week that the Boeing team did a full mission rehearsal-simulation that lasted more than 100 hours. It’s “something we had never done,” Ferguson said. The teams started at T-30 hours before launch and ran the simulation through docking, touchdown, and even added a couple more hours. Boeing says the simulation test was a success.
Even though the first test flight did not complete its mission of docking with the space station, both Boeing and NASA agree that the Starliner proved to be a robust spacecraft with a "solid design."
The key during this second test will be the autonomous capsule’s ability to rendezvous with the station and accomplish a seamless docking while delivering nearly 500 pounds of cargo. Boeing is not charging NASA to carry that cargo or experiments and other material it will bring back to earth.
Rendezvous and docking were part of the Boeing’s full simulation. NASA’s Program Manager for Commercial Crew Steve Stich says this second test mission is, “really just to learn about the “dock part” of the flight, that’s the part of this flight that is so critical.”
Boeing’s Ferguson, who was scheduled to fly this first human Starliner flight, until he pulled out for family commitments, says the full simulation “stitched together every element of the mission that we had previously tested, thoroughly but independently, and gave us an opportunity to see, really, how the vehicle performs over the full duration of an entire mission.”
The former astronaut says Boeing hopes this second test mission is, “incident free.” As clean as it can possibly be.” I asked Ferguson when he might fly the Starliner that he helped develop. He says his first goal is to get the first crew to space station and back, "and then we will see where things go from there."
Ferguson and the Boeing team stacked the full Jenga tower this time around. That full day simulation showed that the "Starliner Jenga tower" stood. Now, get ready for the real launch. Don’t forget to set an alarm.