Spaceflight Insider

Returning astronauts safely: Starliner test provides crucial re-entry data

A high-altitude balloon lifts off in White Sands, New Mexico, carrying a boilerplate of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner to perform a drop test of the spacecraft's parachute system.

A high-altitude balloon lifts off in White Sands, New Mexico, carrying a boilerplate of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner to perform a drop test of the spacecraft’s parachute system. Photo Credit: Boeing

Boeing is currently in the midst of parachute drop tests for its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, which are being carried out to ensure future astronauts a safe return from space. The latest test, conducted on March 10, 2017, at Spaceport America in New Mexico, provided a wealth of data essential for the safety of crews during re-entry into the atmosphere.

During the test, a giant helium-filled balloon lifted off from Spaceport America, carrying a flight-sized boilerplate Starliner spacecraft up to about 40,000 feet (12,200 meters). It floated east across the San Andres Mountains for a parachute landing on the other side at White Sands Missile Range.

“What the balloon launch and release enabled us to do is to test the highest-fidelity Starliner capsule possible in terms of size, shape and weight,” Rebecca Regan of Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security (BDS) division told SpaceFlight Insider. “Performing this in New Mexico enabled us to take the vehicle up to about 40,000 feet before releasing it.”

Seen from the top hatch of the Starliner boilerplate, parachutes deploy as planned to land the boilerplate safely during a test of the parachute system.

Seen from the top hatch of the Starliner boilerplate, parachutes deploy as planned to land the vehicle safely during a test of the parachute system. Photo Credit: Boeing

After the capsule was released from the balloon, it deployed two drogue parachutes designed to stabilize the spacecraft at 28,000 feet (8,530 meters). Next, at approximately 12,000 feet (3,650 meters) above the surface, Starliner opened its pilot parachutes, while its main parachutes were deployed at 8,000 feet (2,440 meters), before the spacecraft’s base heat shield was jettisoned.

“We placed sensors on board the boilerplate spacecraft that collected data real-time, and we’re able to provide that to NASA as insight into how we’ll be giving astronauts a safe return from space,” Regan said.

Engineers will use the data collected during the test to verify parachute inflation characteristics and landing system performance, as well as the altitude and descent rate of the Starliner spacecraft at touchdown. Analyses of the data will tell if the parachute system can stabilize and decelerate the capsule to a nominal terminal descent velocity, what is necessary in order to achieve a safe landing.

The parachute drop tests campaign is part of the final development and certification effort under way for the CST-100 Starliner in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

“These qualification tests are more comprehensive than our initial drop tests, which were meant to prove out concepts, capture data and influence the final design,” Regan said. “We are now testing all of the subsystems and systems together and replicating the environment the spacecraft would encounter on an entry from orbit, including the parachutes, the avionics systems, the pyros and the deployment sequence.”

While the test conducted in late February simulated a nominal return from space, Boeing now plans to introduce anomalies into future tests to see how the vehicle recovers from something like a drogue failure or a main parachute failure.

Starliner’s next parachute drop tests in the New Mexico area are planned to be carried out over the next few months.

The CST-100 Starliner spacecraft was designed to accommodate seven passengers, or a mix of crew and cargo, for missions to low-Earth orbit. For NASA service missions to the ISS, it will carry up to four NASA-sponsored crew members and time-critical scientific research.

Regan confirmed that Starliner is on track for an uncrewed orbital flight test in June 2018 and a crewed flight test to the ISS with one NASA and one Boeing astronaut on board in August 2018.

Video courtesy of Boeing



Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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