ULA Atlas V Stacked for NASA, Boeing Unpiloted Starliner Test Flight Liftoff to ISS July 30

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Launch Vehicle on Stand: Atlas V Starliner OFT-2. United Launch Alliance (ULA) hoists its Atlas V onto the mobile launch platform (MLP) at the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to begin preparations to launch the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on its Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. Credit: United Launch Alliance

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL – United Launch Alliance (ULA) has finished stacking their Atlas V carrier rocket destined for Boeing’s second unpiloted test flight on a critical mission for NASA to prove the commercial system can safely carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS)  – with liftoff of the OFT-2 flight still remaining on track for July 30 from Florida’s Spaceport.

“The uniquely configured Atlas V rocket is assembled following initial stacking operations for the launch of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on the second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) mission,” rocket builder ULA confirmed on July 9.

Launch of Boeing’s commercial CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on the Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) is slated for 2:53 p.m. EDT (1853 GMT) on Friday, July 30 on a ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Dual Engine Centaur upper stage and Launch Vehicle Adapter are lifted atop the Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station that will launch Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew program on July 30, 2021. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The OFT-2 launch follows up on the botched first orbital test flight (OFT) of the commercial astronaut space taxi in Dec. 2019 that failed to reach the station and experienced numerous problems shortly after separation from the ULA Atlas V which performed flawlessly.

Engineers and technicians have spent the past few weeks stacking components of the Atlas rocket to complete its assembly ahead of arrival of the Starliner OFT-2 commercial crew vehicle which will be rolled out to pad 41 soon for stacking and integration activities.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) hoists its Atlas V onto the mobile launch platform (MLP) at the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to begin preparations to launch the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on its Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program on July 30, 2021. Credit: United Launch Alliance

The mission involves only the second flight of Atlas V’s N22 variant featuring two solid rocket boosters (SRBs), two RL10 engines on the Centaur upper stage and a Launch Vehicle Adapter that connects Starliner to the rocket.

The configuration provides the necessary performance to deliver Starliner to the desired trajectory in space to reach the ISS.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) Dual Engine Centaur upper stage and Launch Vehicle Adapter arrives on transporter for lifting atop the Atlas V rocket at the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station that will launch Boeing’s Starliner OFT-2 mission for NASA’s Commercial Crew program on July 30, 2021. Credit: United Launch Alliance

This Atlas V is designated AV-082 and arrived at the Cape from ULA’s factory in Decatur, Ala., on June 1, 2019, to support a Starliner launch.

Atlas V assembly and stacking operation began at pad 41 on June 17, when the first stage was brought to the 30-story-tall Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) and hoisted aboard the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP).

At the VIF, “two cranes grappled both ends of the 107-foot-long stage so that it could be lifted free from its carrier. Next, the aft portion was secured in a special dolly that rides rail tracks, allowing the rocket to be rotated from horizontal to upright by the overhead crane while also the rear inched closer to the VIF,” according to a ULA description.

“Once vertical, the aft structure was disengaged and the crane holding the forward end of the rocket slowly and carefully hoisted the stage into the VIF and positioned it aboard the MLP. This achieved the Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS), a milestone that officially begins the launch campaign and signals another mission is right around the corner.”

United Launch Alliance (ULA) hoists its Atlas V onto the mobile launch platform (MLP) at the Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to begin preparations to launch the Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft on its Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program on July 30, 2021. Credit: United Launch Alliance

“The twin SRBs were attached on Tuesday July 6, and Thursday July 8, to opposite sides of the stage. Manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the AJ-60 boosters will provide nearly half of the energy at liftoff to power the million-pound rocket and Starliner spacecraft into the sky.

On July 9, “the Offsite Vertical Integration (OVI) structure, which consists of the interstage, Dual Engine Centaur upper stage and Launch Vehicle Adapter, was lifted atop the first stage to finish the initial buildup of the vehicle. Centaur will produce 44,000 pounds of thrust from its two RL10A-4-2 cryogenic engines to accelerate Starliner to the prescribed trajectory.”

About 31 minutes after launch if all goes well, Starliner will reach its preliminary orbit and then preform a series of carefully choreographed thruster firing to catch up with the station for rendezvous and docking operation about 24 hours later on Saturday.

Starliner is scheduled to dock to the space station at 3:06 p.m. Saturday, July 31.

Prelaunch activities, launch, and docking will air live on NASA Television, the NASA app, and the agency’s website.

The goal of a second uncrewed test flight OFT-2 is to verify the Starliner CST-100 commercial space taxi is safe and reliable enough to be entrusted to launch NASA astronauts in the future to the International Space Station (ISS) – perhaps by years end.

The original OFT test flight failed to dock at the ISS as planned following launch on 20 December 2019 when a mission elapsed timing error caused the maneuvering thruster to fire longer than planned and expend excess precious fuel and place the ship in the wrong orbit minutes after liftoff on the ULA Atlas V  – which performed flawlessly.

Boeing’s Starliner lifts off on ULA Atlas V rocket from SLC-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on unpiloted Orbital Flight Test mission at 6:36 a.m. EDT Dec. 20, 2019. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/spaceupclose.com

Starliner suffered quite a few other technical failures – especially on the return to Earth where the separation from the service module almost ended in a catastrophic collision  but did finally end with a safe parachute assisted landing at White Sands Space Harbor, New Mexico.

Boeing did not run a full end-to-end mission rehearsal prior to the original OFT mission which would have revealed several of the problems that ultimately doomed the test flight.

The Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft rolls out from the company’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 21, 2019 – on its way to launch complex-41 and mating with ULA Atlas V rocket for the OFT mission launched on Dec. 20, 2019. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/spaceupclose.com

Boeing will fly this second uncrewed Starliner mission OFT-2 at their own expense of some $420 million on an Atlas V targeting liftoff July 30 to prove to NASA the vehicle is safe and reliable.

Following Starliner’s unsuccessful OFT mission a joint NASA-Boeing Independent Review Team (IRT) was formed to conduct a complete review, determine the causes of the failures and make recommendation to solve all the issues.

The IRT issued a report with some 80 recommendations and corrective action that were all implemented, said NASA.

The Starliner OFT-2 vehicle is nearly ready to roll out to pad 41 after completion of operation to measuring the vehicles ‘weight and balance’ confirmed Chris Ferguson, former NASA Shuttle Commander and astronaut and now Boeing director, Starliner Mission Operations and Integration/Crew Systems.

“#Starliner team in action leading up to Orbital Flight Test-2. ‘Weight and balance’ complete….loaded onto @ulalaunch transport for 10 mile ride to waiting Atlas V,” Ferguson tweeted.

Boeing confirms that Starliner is now ready to roll out from its CP3F factory to pad 41  Saturday early morning starting around 3 a.m. ET.

I will be at the rollout – reporting and photographing all the exciting action for Space UpClose. Watch for my articles and social media posts.

Two of the three NASA astronauts who will fly on the first crewed Starliner mission dubbed CFT (Crew Flight Test) were also present at Boeing to watch.

The Atlas V components for CFT arrived at the Cape launch site on June 21 after unloading from the rocket delivery ship in Port Canaveral, FL – read our story illustrated with our photos.

NASA Commercial Crew Starliner Astronauts Barry “Butch” Wilmore and Mike Fincke for the Boeing Starliner Crew Flight Test (CFT) mission meet the media for Q & A with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket first stage being unloaded from the delivery ship R/S RocketShip on June 21, 2021 while docked at the Naval Ordinance Test Unit (NOTU) at Port Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/spaceupclose.com

The Starliner spacecraft is comprised of the reusable crew module and service module and will travel about 10 miles from Boeing’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to United Launch Alliance’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station for hoisting aboard the Atlas V rocket.

“ULA’s motorized payload transporter, adapted to carry Starliner, will move at a top speed of 5 mph, heading from the former space shuttle hangar eastward to the beach and then southward to Space Launch Complex-41,” said Boeing in a statement.

Overall OFT-2 marks the 145th mission for United Launch Alliance and the 88th Atlas V launch.

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