A flight-sized boilerplate of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner touched down gently under parachutes against the backdrop of the San Andres Mountains in late February, providing a preview of how the spacecraft will return to Earth in upcoming NASA missions. Boeing is developing the Starliner to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in partnership with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
The parachute test is one in a series that will allow the vehicle to pick up the same velocity as the actual spacecraft when returning to Earth in the southwest region of the United States from the International Space Station. The goal of the test series is to prove the design of the Starliner’s parachutes.
“Completion of this test campaign will bring Boeing and NASA one step closer to launching astronauts on an American vehicle and bringing them home safely,” said Mark Biesack, spacecraft systems lead for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.
The test began at the Spaceport America facility near the Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. During the test, the Starliner was lifted about 40,000 feet in the air, the flying altitude of a typical commercial airline flight, by a Near Space Corp. helium balloon and then released over the White Sands Missile Range.
Given the flight-like characteristics and the large size of the capsule, Boeing was not able to fit the Starliner test article into the hold of a C-130 or C-17 aircraft. Their solution, a 1.3-million-cubic-foot balloon, which is able to lift the capsule to its intended altitude.
“This parachute test, as well as the subsequent tests in Boeing’s qualification test campaign, provides valuable data, because the test article has the same mass, outer mold line, and center of gravity as the flight vehicle,” said Biesack. “The high-fidelity data they receive from these tests will anchor predicted models of realistic parachute deployment.”
Attached underneath the Starliner boilerplate was a large, yellow stabilization weight used to orient the test vehicle’s angle of attack and speed of descent. As the Starliner descended to the desert at speeds of 300 miles per hour, a series of dynamic events slowed the spacecraft. Shortly after the Starliner was released from the balloon, the spacecraft deployed two drogue parachutes at 28,000 feet to stabilize the spacecraft, then its pilot parachutes at 12,000 feet. The main parachutes followed at 8,000 feet above the ground prior to the jettison of the spacecraft’s base heat shield at 4,500 feet. Finally, the spacecraft touched the ground lightly, kicking up the desert sand.
During missions to the station, the Starliner will be equipped with large air bags that will cushion the impact during landing. The Boeing design calls for the spacecraft to be reused up to ten times, and a land-landing will aid with reusability. In the event of an emergency, the spacecraft also can splash down in the ocean.
The Starliner spacecraft will launch on an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA also is partnering with SpaceX to develop a crew transportation system all in an effort to return to U.S. human spaceflight launches from American soil. SpaceX will launch its Crew Dragon spacecraft on the company’s Falcon 9 rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.