SpaceX and Boeing are set to launch critical abort tests of their respective commercial crew vehicles within days of one another.
During an October 30 address to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations committee, the agency’s commercial crew program manager Kathy Lueders revealed that Boeing was working towards a November 4 pad abort test. The date is just days before SpaceX is set to perform a static-fire test of the Crew Dragon’s redesigned SuperDraco thrusters.
The Boeing pad abort test will take place at the White Sands Missle Range in New Mexico. The test is designed to simulate the Starliner vehicle escaping from its launch vehicle during an emergency. To do this, dedicated abort engines in the Starliner vehicle’s service module are fired pushing the vehicle up and away from the launchpad. During the procedure, the vehicle is expected to reach an altitude of 1.5 kilometers and touchdown 90 seconds later at least 1.5 kilometers downrange.
Assuming a successful pad abort test of the Starliner vehicle is completed, Boeing will move ahead with a planned uncrewed orbital test flight. The flight is expected to be launched on December 17 with a fully operational Starliner vehicle rendezvousing and docking with the International Space Station. Following an extended stay docked to the station, the vehicle will return to Earth and be retrieved to be examined by NASA and Boeing teams.
Days after the Boeing pad abort test, SpaceX is expected to attempt a static-fire test of the Crew Dragon vehicle’s redesigned SuperDraco thrusters.
In April this year, a static-fire test of the SuperDraco thrusters on the refurbished Demo-1 Crew Dragon caused an explosion that destroyed the vehicle. Although the investigation into the incident is still ongoing, SpaceX identified a leaky valve as the culprit and redesigned the thrusters to remedy the issue.
As a result of the explosion and subsequent redesign of the SuperDraco thrusters, SpaceX is required to have the thrusters recertified for human-rated spaceflight. Next week’s static-fire test will be used to complete this recertification.
If the static-fire test of the redesigned thrusters is successful, SpaceX will move ahead with an in-flight abort test. The test will utilize the same Crew Dragon vehicled used for the static-fire test. It will be launched in early December and involve escaping from a Falcon 9 launch vehicle approximately 90 seconds after lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center.