While Starliner tests its capabilities during Boeing’s first uncrewed Starliner flight test, astronauts are getting ready to fly through extensive training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. As home to the astronaut corps and training, Johnson is equipped with various Starliner simulators and trainers to ensure the astronauts are prepared for any situation that may arise during their missions. While Starliner is designed to fly autonomously, astronauts are trained to step in for almost any emergency situation – as always, training as they will fly and preparing for the unexpected.
Boeing’s first uncrewed test flight, known as Orbital Flight Test (OFT), will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. During OFT, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will autonomously rendezvous, dock and undock with the International Space Station and return to Earth at White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico. This will be the first flight to space for Starliner and is a major step toward demonstrating the spacecraft is ready to begin carrying astronauts to the station.
NASA caught up with Jim May, Boeing’s Starliner crew training specialist and software engineer, to learn more about Starliner training at Johnson.
How many Starliner training components are housed at Johnson?
May: We have three largescale simulators bigger than a computer – the Boeing Mission Simulator and two part-task trainers. We also have a mockup of the Starliner spacecraft in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility to use for training.
How is the Boeing Mission Simulator used for training?
May: The Boeing Mission Simulator is meant to be our main mission simulator. It’s a cutting-edge simulator that looks, feels and operates just like the Starliner itself. The crew uses the mission simulator, which is the exact same size as the flight deck of the Starliner, so they can interact with one another and get used to sitting in the exact same location as they would be in for their mission. The simulator ties into the broader spectrum of both training assets and simulators that NASA already uses as well to present flight-like conditions of the controls for every phase of a Starliner mission. The Starliner mission simulator sits on the same footprint as the former space shuttle mission simulator, and the Starliner instructors work from rooms just down the hall like the shuttle instructors, so the overall training environment should feel familiar. When the crew is training for Starliner-specific tasks they have a dedicated set of Starliner instructors, and when they’re training for things like rendezvous and undocking with the International Space Station, we tie our simulator into the station simulator. All of systems also tie into the Mission Control Center to enable integrated training runs with the same ground control teams and astronauts will work with during their mission.
How is the Boeing Mission Trainer (BMT) used?
May: The Boeing Mission Trainer is the same size and dimensions as a real Starliner vehicle and is positioned upright in the attitude Starliner will be in when it’s sitting on the launch pad or after landing on Earth. The trainer is meant for crews to practice getting into and out of the spacecraft in various situations, as well as learning how to efficiently move around inside the vehicle. For things like pad entry or emergency egress, that training is all done in the trainer. Flipping switches and working on control panels usually is all done in the mission simulator. Since the mockup is sitting upright like it would be for launch and landing, the crew has opportunity to practice getting in and out of the spacecraft, should they have to in the scenario that they’ve landed somewhere that emergency crews couldn’t get to them immediately. We also practice with the emergency crews getting into the spacecraft through the side hatch or the top hatch to practice pulling the flight crew out of the spacecraft. The mockup trainer gives the pad and landing crews the opportunity to refine procedures for crew support for launch and landing and to rehearse cargo loading and unloading.
What is the purpose of the Crew Part Task Trainers?
May: We have two part-task trainers here on site at Johnson in building 5. The part task trainers are designed to let astronauts practice individual elements of a Starliner mission in a more classroom-style environment. They are lower fidelity in the sense that they don’t have a full physical flight-like console, but instead have four large touchscreens. Certain parts are between 80- to 100-percent scale, but these trainers provide a similar control layout as if a pilot were sitting in the real spacecraft seat. It has control functionality identical to the real Starliner vehicle, so astronauts can run through procedures and training with instructors who sit in the same room with them. Things are meant to be done in small pieces, so a “part task,” for example, has an astronaut learn how to rendezvous the vehicle or learn how to use the joysticks. That type of individual training for individual people are all done in the part task trainers. It keeps crews from having to fully strap into a flight seat and also minimizes the number of people involved for a more intimate learning environment; the instructor is sitting behind the student and they can have casual conversations without voice loops and headsets.
Why did Boeing choose to have training operations on site at Johnson?
May: Everyone’s time is valuable, so being able to have crews get to their training within minutes when they’re at Johnson is very helpful. During the design of the spacecraft, it was extremely convenient for the engineers, training and operations people to just drive across the street and be involved in design discussions or a development simulation. The original four astronauts assigned to commercial crew were also involved with the design and the early analysis on how they would operate Starliner. It was great being able to drive across the street and talk to them or get their inputs in the physical mockups and simulators within minutes. For the future, it helps to be co-located with space station training, as well. When the crews are doing integrated training between the station and Starliner, emergency egress from station for example, they can go directly from the station mockup to the Starliner mockup in the same building or to the mission simulator in a nearby building and can immediately get into practicing their procedures. The idea of train like you fly has been made easy by the co-location.
How will the crews be able to put their training to work during the Orbital Flight Test?
May: The crews will have roles both at the launch site and in Mission Control and will get to see their simulation training come to life. For this flight test, a lot of their focus will be situational awareness of how the ground teams operate, since they’ll be in the seats and far removed from the ground teams for the crewed flight. For the uncrewed flight, they’ll get to sit directly with the ground teams they’re going to be working and communicating with remotely when they’re on board the Starliner.
Will astronaut training change in any way after the Orbital Flight Test or will the crews continue with typical training?
May: Training should be pretty close to the same after OFT. We’ve been using every revision of the flight software, and as we’ve narrowed down and finalized the vehicle design and come up with what we consider our baseline training plan. The Crewed Flight Test (CFT) is going to be slightly different, but OFT is unique because parts of the mission are demos to prove the vehicle can do what it is required to, which aren’t always required to be demoed on a crewed flight. We have six demonstration options, and we teach the flight controllers that part of the mission and some of the demos won’t be necessary for CFT. Crewed simulations should be pretty close to the baseline for all our future contract missions. Any revisions to the training will be from lessons learned during OFT or in future crewed missions.
NASA astronauts Nicole Mann and Mike Fincke and Boeing’s Chris Ferguson are continuing preparations for the first crewed flight aboard Starliner known as the Crew Flight Test. In addition to training on Starliner’s systems, they’re rehearsing both expected and unlikely scenarios, such as water rescue training. They also are well into space station training, and are now focusing on becoming a longer duration crew. Mann and Fincke are training for upcoming spacewalks, and Ferguson is training to support them from inside the station.