Is NASA trying to downplay the seriousness of Starliner’s parachute failure?

At the cost of safety?

Boeing’s Starliner capsule completed its first “flight test” in the form of a pad abort test. This involves no rocket booster, and only the capsule taking flight using its “launch abort” rocket engines. Using the side-mounted engines, the Starliner capsule accelerated to 650mph in under 5 seconds, demonstrating the working of the launch abort system.

The launch abort test marked Boeings first, and much delayed, step into developing their spacecraft that can take American astronauts to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA awarded the $4.2 billion contract to Boeing in 2014, and 5 years later Boeing is showing a significant step in developments for the program. SpaceX was awarded a similar contract from NASA but is already on track to test its Crew Dragon unmanned launch abort test later this year. SpaceX completed its pad abort way back in 2015.

Anomalies with Boeing’s pad abort test

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However, Boeing’s pad abort test wasn’t as smooth as expected. While coming back down, one of the three parachutes from the capsule failed to deploy. Though Boeing notes that two parachutes are capable of maintaining crew and capsule safety, an entire parachute not deploying is a reason for major concern.

Source: NASA TV

Another rather unusual occurrence with Boeing’s pad abort test was the large fumes of orange smoke coming from the spacecraft as it landed. The fumes are supposed to be coming from the dinitrogen tetroxide propellant from Starliner. The negative effects of these fumes or the reason for its emanation is still unknown. However, it doesn’t seem like a normal occurrence.

Source: NASA TV

What is a pad abort test?

The pad abort test is a flight test conducted to test the “launch escape system” on a spacecraft/capsule. The launch escape system is the “final-defense” against critical flight failures that can protect the crew of a spacecraft in case a “life or death” situation arrives.

While taking off, there are chances that the rocket booster that is carrying the spacecraft can encounter any critical failures. When such a situation occurs, a method was devised in which the capsule can safely be blasted away from the “about to explode” rocket booster, keeping the crew of the capsule safe. The pad abort test is the most important test of a crewed spacecraft. It will demonstrate the working of the rocket engines mounted on the side of the spacecraft that are designed to give a large burst of thrust that can accelerate the capsule away from the already accelerating rocket.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon in pad abort test, May 2015. Source: SpaceX

Commercial Crew and NASA

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NASA, especially over the past few months, has been pushing SpaceX and Boeing to complete the spacecraft required by their contracts. The day before the launch event of SpaceX’s Starship, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine even indirectly criticized SpaceX, asking Elon Musk to focus on the Commercial Crew Program that “taxpayers had paid for.” Elon Musk even replied back on the statement to a reporter, mocking NASA’s failure to develop the very expensive Space Launch System, again “wasting taxpayers’ money.”

NASA even asked Boeing to livestream Monday’s pad abort test to allow more transparency for the “taxpayer.” Though NASA is putting a lot of focus on the taxpayers, they are focused on bringing the Commercial Crew Program up as soon as possible. The increased focus is largely due to the United States currently depending on Russia to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station via their Soyuz spacecraft.

NASA doesn’t want to depend on Russia

NASA wants to eliminate its dependence on Russia for sending American astronauts into space. That is why it contracted SpaceX and Boeing to build spacecraft for the Commerical Crew Program.

Read Also: SpaceX and Boeing almost ready for commercial crew test

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SpaceX’s solution is Crew Dragon, a modified Cargo Dragon spacecraft designed for human spaceflight, that can be launched atop the company’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX is so far ahead in the race, with them ready to finally test the spacecraft with humans on board, performing a mid-flight launch abort test. After this, SpaceX will send the first human crew to the ISS on its Crew Dragon spacecraft as early as the beginning of next year.

Boeing’s solution is the Starliner spacecraft that will be launched atop the ULA’s Atlas V rocket. Starliner just completed its pad abort test. It still has to go through an unmanned mission and a manned launch abort test in order to prove itself before a manned mission to the ISS.

At the cost of safety?

The most important thing is that NASA, Boeing, and SpaceX make sure that everything is safe before putting humans in these spacecraft.

There have been many delays, mostly due to issues with the pad abort engines or other safety concerns. It is better that SpaceX and Boeing take their time to make sure that the spacecraft they are making are to the highest possible safety standards. With Boeing’s recent pad abort test being classified as a “success” even after unknown anomalies occurring brings into question the safety standards that these companies have internally set.

Could it be that NASA is trying to expedite the pace of the program at the cost of minor safety factors? Or is NASA still maintaining high safety standards, and the anomalies at Monday’s test truly are within permissible limits?

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