Boeing Successfully Tests Starliner Crew Escape System

Entire test required only 95 seconds to complete.

The Starliner’s crew escape system
The Starliner’s crew escape system is capable of returning all crewmembers on the CST-100 safely to earth in an emergency.NASA

With the demise of the space shuttle program nearly 20 years ago, Boeing's Crew Space Transportation (CST)-100 Starliner spacecraft, being developed with NASA's Commercial Crew Program, was designed to fill the gap and to return human spaceflight launches to the International Space Station from American soil. The reusable Starliner will carry as many as seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit. For NASA service missions to the International Space Station, the Starliner will carry up to four NASA-sponsored crew members.

But long before the first launch, the Starliner’s emergency escape system must prove it can safely carry a crew away from the launch pad in the event of an emergency prior to liftoff. NASA has not forgotten the lessons it learned when it lost three astronauts on the pad in 1967 when a fire erupted inside the Apollo capsule.

The Starliner spacecraft last week completed a critical safety milestone in an end-to-end test of its abort system during a test at Launch Complex 32 at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. During the test, Starliner’s four launch abort engines and several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters simultaneously ignited to rapidly push the spacecraft away from the test stand. Five seconds into flight, the abort engines shut off as planned, transferring steering to the control thrusters for the next five seconds.

A pitch-around maneuver rotated the spacecraft into position for landing as it neared its peak altitude of approximately 4,500 feet. Two of Starliner’s three main parachutes deployed just under half a minute into the test, and the service module separated from the crew module a few seconds later. Although designed with three parachutes, two opening successfully is acceptable for the test perimeters and crew safety.

After one minute, the heat shield was released, the airbags inflated, and the Starliner eased to the ground beneath its parachutes. The demonstration took only about 95 seconds from the moment the simulated abort was initiated until the Starliner crew module touched down on the desert ground. No date has yet been announced for the first crewed flight of the Starliner.