Starliner parachute glitch traced to unsecured pin

Starliner pad abort test
Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi descends on the end of two parachutes during this week’s pad abort test. The Starliner’s heat shield can be seen falling away beneath the craft. (Boeing Photo)

For want of a pin, the use of a spaceship’s parachute was lost.

That may be a simplistic way to explain why one of the three parachutes on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi failed to open. It does, however, serve as a cautionary tale about the one obvious glitch in the Nov. 4 pad abort test of the Starliner, a craft that’s due to start transporting NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station next year.

Overall, the test was judged a success: The uncrewed Starliner fired the rocket engines on its launch abort system, slowed its descent with the aid of the two parachutes that did open, and deployed its airbags to make a perfectly acceptable landing at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

If there had been crew aboard, and if an emergency involving the Starliner’s Atlas 5 rocket were to come up on the Florida launch pad, the astronauts would have made a safe escape and landing — as a splashdown in the Atlantic rather than a touchdown in the desert.

“This was a robust test of what the vehicle could do if we had an issue on the pad. A huge test,” Kathy Lueders, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, said today during a teleconference reviewing the pad abort test.

The glitch involving the third parachute wasn’t serious enough to force a delay for the Starliner’s first uncrewed test flight to the space station and back, set for launch no earlier than Dec. 17. Nevertheless, it was important for Boeing’s engineers to determine the root cause and take steps to avoid having the anomaly happen again.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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