Loose pin blamed for imperfect chute deployment in Starliner test

NASA: Uncrewed flight to space station on track for December

A loose pin prevented one of the parachutes tucked inside Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner capsule from deploying during Monday’s crewless abort test in New Mexico, a Boeing official told reporters Thursday.

The loose pin was the sole problem in an otherwise “outstanding” first flight of Starliner, said John Mulholland, Boeing’s Commercial Crew program manager, in a call with reporters.

Starliners, developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, could carry Americans to the International Space Station starting in 2020.

Before NASA permits astronauts to fly on Starliner, Boeing needed to show that the engines and thrusters under Starliner could boost it and its crew away from a fizzling or exploding launch vehicle. The trouble occurred near the end of the test when one of its three main parachutes did not deploy.

“The root cause was a lack of secure connection between the pilot chute and the main chute,” explained Mulholland, referring to the smaller chute that was supposed to pull the larger chute out of the spacecraft.

The pin attaching the Kevlar riser of the pilot chute to the main chute was not securely fastened, so the pilot chute deployed but the larger chute did not, he said.

Because the parachutes and their risers are covered by a protective sheath inside the spacecraft, “it’s very difficult when you’re connecting [the pins] to verify visually that it’s secured properly,” Mulholland said.

Boeing has previously tested Starliner’s parachute system without “any anomalous performance of any parachutes,” he said.

The congressional Government Accountability Office found that NASA’s certification of the parachute systems aboard Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the other Commercial Crew capsule, has been one of the biggest reasons for delays in NASA’s effort to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for rides to the ISS.

NASA now expects Boeing and SpaceX to make their first crewed flights in the first half of 2020, a schedule that remained unchanged after Monday’s test, according to Commercial Crew Manager Kathy Leuders, who was also on the call.

Nevertheless, she noted that the Starliner parachutes “will be checked and double checked and triple checked” before its next test, an uncrewed flight to the ISS scheduled for Dec. 17.


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A spacecraft capsule descends towards Earth, supported by two red-and-white parachutes against a clear blue sky.
Two of three parachutes deploy during Boeing’s pad abort test of its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Credit: NASA

Loose pin blamed for imperfect chute deployment in Starliner test