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Boeing readies ‘astronaut’ for likely October test launch

Inside the Boeing facility at Kennedy Space Center, engineers and technicians fit the the anthropometric test device- the test dummy- into a space suit. The test dummy will fly on the orbital flight test of the CST-100 Starliner. (Malcom Denemark/Florida Today via AP/TNS)
September 15, 2019

Boeing has welcomed its newest astronaut to the Starliner team. Unlike other crew members, he doesn’t have advanced degrees in aerospace or much experience at all. In fact, he’s pretty dumb.

Meet the Boeing Starliner’s anthropometric test device, also known as a crash-test dummy. Its name and gender have not yet been revealed, but a group of engineers and technicians suited up the dummy, which will fly on the inaugural flight of the Starliner spacecraft now slated to launch late September or early October from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

It took a team of five people to wrestle the rigid plastic dummy into the space suit. Melanie Weber, a Starliner design engineer, joked: “It’s like trying to get a bride in a wedding dress when’s she’s gained 10 pounds.”

The procedure brings Boeing one step closer to launching humans to orbit, something that hasn’t happened from U.S. soil since the end of the shuttle program in 2011.

“This is a really exciting moment for our team. You know, we’ve done fit checks on this ATD before with a spacesuit, but this is the first time that we’re putting the ATD in the suit, so that we can get him ready to put him inside the spacecraft for launch. So that’s a big deal for us,” said Jessica Landa, a Boeing Starliner spokesperson.

Boeing modified the off-the-shelf dummy with sensors on its back and neck to measure the G-forces it will experience during launch and landing. It is wearing the ultra lightweight “Boeing blue” spacesuit manufactured by David Clark Company in Massachusetts, makers of spacesuits for NASA’s Gemini and space shuttle missions.

“We’ve improved mobility. We actually have a helmet that is integrated into the suit so they can zip it around, which is really cool,” Landa said. “It’s got touchscreen glove capabilities. What we would hope is that our astronauts have a good experience when they’re wearing it.”

What everyone wants to know is how soon that will be.

In 2014, NASA selected Boeing’s Starliner to be one of the launch vehicles to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew program. SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft was also chosen and completed a successful orbital test flight of its crew capsule in March. In this heated race to space, SpaceX appeared to be ahead until its Dragon capsule exploded during a test of its launch abort thrusters only a month later in April. …

Boeing recently completed all the parachute testing necessary to fly astronauts and technicians just performed a successful “power on test” ensuring all computers and systems power up and the batteries are operational on Starliner.

“From here on out, we’re putting the back shells on, that’s what makes it pretty. Then the thermal protection,” Boeing spokesperson Josh Barrett said. “We’re going to build up what’s called the upper deck. That’s the parachutes. We’re gonna mate the crew and the service module. Fuel it up, send it to the launch pad. That’s all we have left to do.”

With Launch Complex 41 now firmly in their sights, the Boeing team doesn’t have time to be distracted by the competition.

“That’s not a priority of ours, to be first. We are so close to launch that it’s kind of hard to think about anything else to be honest,” Landa said. “We are so in the zone. We are marching toward that finish line and we are excited to put our vehicle on the pad and test it.”


© 2019 The News-Journal