Boeing announced that their CST-100 Starliner manned spacecraft will be launched for the first time with 6 months delay. News came in pair with show of new aerodynamic concept of Atlas V/CST-100 combo.
Boeing and United Launch Alliance have had problems with general aerodynamic conception of Atlas V/CST-100 Starliner combo from some time. Boeing announced on May, 2016, that their flagship space product, CST-100 Starliner (CST stands for Crew Space Transportation) manned spacecraft developed for NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev), will be launched for the first test flight not in 2017, as it was previously scheduled, but in 2018. Boeing was assuring, that delay is result of less important problems; some sources claimed, that issues are connected with aero acoustic characteristic of CST-100, other claimed that problem lies in integration process of CST-100 and Atlas V rocket in 422 configuration or production problems. After announcement given by ULA, we can still assume where that problem lied. ULA claims, that issues with putting CST-100 into production have been overcome, but ULA presented yesterday new aerodynamic conception of Atlas V and CST-100, what rather shows, that project is still under development. Boeing also confirmed that first test flight slipped to the end of the first half of 2018, but still Company would like to conduct first operational flight according to schedule. What is happening with CST-100?
According to interview given to Aviation Week by John Mulholland, vice president and program manager for commercial programs in space exploration at Boeing, three main problems with CST-100 are: delays with supply chain, problems with production of lower dome of vehicle (which was scrapped after spotting problems after production) and issues during qualification process of minor components of the CST-100. All these problems caused 6 months delay, including 1 month margin, and pushed away in time first pad abort tests planned for October 2017. Problems also appeared with assembling with launch vehicle; as we know, CST-100 was designed to be launched on atop of Atlas V without payload fairing – whole pressure and force which appeared during flight will affect on capsule directly. Problems appeared during planning phase of transonic flight; ULA and Boeing (with help from group of NASA engineers) were forced to change aerodynamic concept of Service Module and bottom part of Starliner. New concept of CST-100 and Atlas V assumes implementing various changes in the aerodynamics of both vehicles comparing to present project. Most important is adding aeroskirt aft to CST-100 Service Module. Additional aeroskirt is designed to help in the moment of transonic flight adding necessary stabilization and pressure reducing. All these issues forced on Boeing revision of the schedule. Pad abort test is planned for January 2018; first unmanned test flight is now scheduled for June 2018 with manned test flight planned for August. First operational flight to International Space Station is planned for December 2018. Boeing still keeps strongly date of first operational flight – it was already postponed and probably NASA would not be happy with another delay. It is worth to remind, that Agency’s Office of Inspector General already created (and presented on September 1, 2016) report on progress in development of CST-100 and its competitor, manned version of Dragon spacecraft by SpaceX. It summed up progress with following words:
“The first certified flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS is unlikely to occur until late 2018 – more than 3 years after NASA’s original 2015 goal. While past funding shortfalls have contributed to the delay, technical challenges are now driving schedule slippages. Until at least one of the commercial contractors are certified, NASA will continue to pay Russia more than $80 million a seat to transport astronauts to the Station on Russian vehicles.”
Just like present correction of aerodynamic design of CST-100, some issues seemed to have origins in very early phase of design. Such problems may also appear in future for example after test flights. Report also mentions, that these problems were pointed already in ASAP report from 2015, when it was clearly stated that financial problems with program resulted in creating vehicles with design far from superiority:
“The [Program] was underfunded during the critical early years of development. Specifically, the Program received only 57 percent of the requested funding in fiscal year (FY) 2011 through FY 2013. This underfunding in the critical early system design years resulted in a design at Critical Design Review that was not as mature as it might have been.”
Present problems with CST-100 are rather caused by economic problems in past years. Now it could be hard to solve everything as easy as it could be done in the phase of design. CST-100 will probably start flights in 2018 or in 2019 if any other problems will appear, but question should be if it will be safe and reliable vehicle which will serve for years, or it will become some kind of transitional stage to more mature construction.