[UPDATE: RL-10C engine use further delayed] ULA sends Boeing’s Crewed Flight Test booster to Florida ahead of the next uncrewed test

United Launch Alliance loaded an Atlas V Booster and Dual Engine Centaur onto their Rocketship boat over the weekend. Its destination? Florida. This isn’t just any ordinary Atlas V though, this will be the first one to carry crew to space. The Boeing Starliner Crewed Flight Test (CFT) is still expected NET late 2021. However, a second Orbital Flight Test is needed.

UPDATE: ULA Begins OFT-2 Booster Stacking

UPDATE: RL-10C not to be used for upcoming Atlas missions

Why a second Orbital Flight Test?

While SpaceX has had 2 operational Crew Dragon flights to date, Boeing’s Starliner has only had 1 test flight. For those who may not remember, or have not heard what occurred during the first Orbital Flight Test (OFT), let’s break it down. OFT-1 launched December 20th, 2019 but encountered problems shortly after capsule separation.

The Starliner capsule, which was named Calypso, believed it was conducting a burn which it was not. This was due to the capsule’s software grabbing the wrong time from the Atlas computers; It believed it was 11 hours ahead. The software error leads to the capsule burning through its fuel supply much faster than anticipated. Part of the OFT-1 mission was to dock the International Space Station (ISS). However, this was aborted due to the depleted fuel.

Boeing’s OFT-1 liftoffs from SLC-41. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Calypso landed at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico after a 2-day flight, but not before encountering yet another software issue. An error that would have affected the thruster firings required to safely eject the service module was detected before re-entry. The loss of the vehicle would have followed had this issue not been identified.

Investigations after the flight found that these errors slipped past multiple safeguards and would have possibly been identified before the flight had full-stack testing been completed. Boeing announced that a second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) would be conducted before flying crew. They added that it would not be at the expense of the taxpayers.

Boeing, NASA, and U.S. Army personnel work around OFT-1’s Starliner capsule shortly after it landed in White Sands, New Mexico. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

All of this leads us to today. After delays due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, power surges, extreme weather events, plus ISS scheduling conflicts, Boeing is working towards a July 30th, 2021 liftoff of OFT-2.

ULA Preparations

The Atlas V Booster and Dual Engine Centaur for the Crewed Flight Test have been loaded onto the Rocketship transport vessel and left ULA’s Decatur, Alabama facility.

The Atlas V Booster and Dual Engine Centaur are already at the Cape ahead of OFT-2. This rocket arrived around the same time or a little after the OFT-1 flight. However, this rocket was slated originally for the Crewed Flight Test. When I was at the NASA Social event for the Solar Orbiter launch, we got a tour of the Atlas Spaceflight Operations Center from Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA. We got to go stand next to this very same Atlas V Booster and see the Centaur. At the time, it was still slated for the Crewed Flight Test, but Tory said it would be used for a second Orbital Flight Test if it was needed.

The OFT-2 Mission will be United Launch Alliance’s next flight due to the slip of the Space Force’s STP-3 mission which was originally planned to launch this month.

OFT-2 Stacking Begins

ULA began stacking operations leading up to the OFT-2 launch, which is currently scheduled for the afternoon of July 30th.

STP-3 Launch Slip

After the launch of SBIRS GEO 5, the Space Test Program 3 (STP-3) mission was expected to fly. However, a potential issue was spotted during the SBIRS launch. That launch featured the first use of the RL-10C1-1, an upgraded RL-10C engine with a carbon nozzle extension. Those who watched the live stream may have noticed some wobbling occurring in the engine bell.

A gif of the wobbling/vibrations in the RL-10C

ULA is investigating this behavior to better understand it and a new launch date is expected soon. The RL-10C-1-1 will be flown on Vulcan’s Centaur V and replaced the regular RL-10C-1 for a verification flight test, similar to how ULA has been testing the majoriy of Vulcan’s flight hardware.

This issue does not affect the OFT-2, or CFT missions though as they do not use the RL-10C with this extension. Everything is currently progressing towards the July 30th launch date with seemingly no issues being worked at this time.

UPDATE: ULA CEO and President Tory Bruno has stated that the upgraded RL-10C engine will not be used on any upcoming Atlas flights. The company is still conducting studies into the behavior seen during the SBRIS GEO 5 flight to determine any corrective action. The decision to continue flying the upgraded engine will likely come next year.

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