SpaceX and Boeing jump ahead in the race to send NASA astronauts to space

The pair are working hard.

Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station

SpaceX and Boeing are taking off in a big way.

Over the weekend, SpaceX announced via Twitter that it had successfully completed 13 tests in a row of the Crew Dragon’s upgraded parachute system. CEO Elon Musk has previously described the Mark 3 chutes as offering the “highest safety factor for astronauts.”

Eagle-eyed fans noted that the company planned to complete 10 successful launches in a row before using the capsule to launch astronauts, but Musk subsequently clarified that only one of these 13 tests involved multiple parachutes. This, Musk explained, meant the team still needed to complete nine more tests in this configuration before it could move on.

Meanwhile, at around 9 a.m. Eastern time on Monday, Boeing successfully tested its launch pad abort system test for the CST-100 Starliner capsule. The test was hosted at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at Launch Complex 32.

Both companies are working as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew program, which aims to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station using commercial capsules. Ever since the shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA has been using Russian agency Roscosmos rockets to maintain a presence on the space station. Each seat on a Soyuz rocket costs around $80 million, and they take off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The program could enable SpaceX and Boeing to take over, but progress has been slow. Musk previously claimed SpaceX could send humans into space by April 2019. SpaceX was the first to complete an unmanned test launch for its capsule back in March 2019, a feat Boeing has yet to achieve, but in a scathing report the Government Accountability Office claimed in June that both firms have faced “chronic delays.”

SpaceX tests its parachutes.
SpaceX tests its parachutes.

SpaceX Crew Dragon: the capsule takes flight

Musk has suffered a rocky relationship with NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine. Ahead of SpaceX’s planned unveiling for the Starship Mk.1 prototype, the final version of which is expected to send humans to Mars, Bridenstine noted that the Commercial Crew program is “years behind schedule.”

There are signs the pair is patching things up. During a visit to SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California last month, the pair declared that a manned test flight would take place in the first quarter of 2020.

One of the key stumbling blocks to a manned flight is the parachute system. A highly-publicized failure in April sparked questions about the Crew Dragon. Musk declared during the October conference that the tram was using a new Mark 3 parachute supplied by the firm Airborne. The team expected to host the first successful test with the new chutes “within a week or two.”

“We certainly want to get at least something on the order of 10 successful tests in a row before launching astronauts,” Musk said. “Where the behavior of the parachutes is consistent across 10 successful tests, I think that’s a good fiure of merit.”

Musk declared that the team could reach “something like 10 tests…before the end of the year.” Musk stressed, however, that it was a “best guess.”

With SpaceX’s weekend announcement, it seemed the team has already beaten this challenge. However, Musk later explained that only one of these was a multi-parachute test and the team still needed to complete nine more tests.

The Mark 3 parachute makes a number of changes from its predecessor. It has much stronger ropes, going from nylon to “xylon.” The strength is about three times or more than nylon.

“There’s actually a thing called xylon,” Musk laughed.

The xylon parachutes prepare for launch.
The xylon parachutes prepare for launch.

The stitching pattern is also changed. Where the lines connect to the canopy creates a stress concentration, so the team needs to use “just exactly the right joint” that will spread the load and manage the concentration.

“We have learned a lot recently about asymmetry issues,” Bridenstine said. “That being said, we can apply that…across the agency as a whole to make sure that our astronauts will be safe.”

With the parachute issues seemingly resolved, SpaceX will take another step toward an in-flight abort test. This test will demonstrate that the capsule’s SuperDraco thrusters can enable the capsule to escape from a rocket during lift-off. From there, the team can move onto a “Demo-2” manned capsule test with astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley.

Boeing's Starliner comes in to land.
Boeing's Starliner comes in to land.

Boeing CST-100 Starliner: catching up

During Monday’s test, Boeing put its CST-100 to the test. The company told CBS that the on-flight abort test hosted Monday should be enough to demonstrate the success of the abort system.

The test, which started at 9:15 a.m. Eastern time, saw the team send up a capsule by itself without a rocket, instead using the capsule’s thrusters to reach speeds of up to 650 mph. Five seconds after launch it shut off the thrusters, as it reached a peak altitude of nearly 4,500 feet.

The capsule was then expected to deploy two drogue chutes followed by three pilot chutes. Only two of the three pilot chutes deployed just under 30 seconds into the test, but it was enough to successfully enable the capsule to touch down. The underside airbag successfully deployed one minute later and enabled the capsule to land. The entire demonstration took 95 seconds.

“Today was really amazing,” Mike Fink, one of the crew flight test astronauts, said during an interview with NASA TV moments after the test. “We hope we never need to use this system, but in case we ever have any trouble aboard the beautiful Atlas V on the launchpad, we note after today’s test that we’ll be able to get off safely and then come back and try again a different day.”

The next step will be to launch an unmanned capsule to the International Space Station. The mission, which will send a Starliner on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, will lift off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41 on December 17.

The race to send NASA astronauts to space continues.

Media via SpaceX, NASA