Having fallen from a height of 35,000 feet and landed safely in the New Mexico desert, Boeing’s Starliner space capsule successfully completed its parachute balloon drop test on Monday, clearing the way for crewed test flights.
Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which uses parachutes to slow it for water landings, the Starliner employs a multi-stage system of parachutes and airbags to cushion its landings on solid ground. According to Boing, the Starliner is actually the first American-made lander designed to land on land.
“Our philosophy has always been testing the system hardware together to see how all the elements interact,” Starliner landing system lead, Mike McCarley, said in a statement Monday. “Our vehicle can’t fit in an airplane, so the only way we can lift a test article high enough to simulate an entire landing system sequence is with very a large balloon.”
To ensure that the parachute system is robust enough to deliver astronauts from the ISS even in the event of a mishap, Starliner engineers threw a few wrinkles into this final drop test. First they prevented one of the heat shield parachutes from deploying, then stopped one of the two drogue parachutes from opening as well. Regardless of these issues, the capsule’s three main parachutes deployed without incident and gently guided the Starliner down to the ground.
Even though the test was a success, Boeing engineers are already planning further improvements to the parachutes. “By increasing the strength of their material and attachment points, we are improving system reliability with only minor adjustments,” Dan Niedermaier, Starliner’s flight test manager, said in a statement. “As our landing system continues to execute successfully, Boeing is committed to developing the safest orbital crew capsule possible and this supplemental testing is helping us achieve that goal.”
Up next the Starliner is scheduled conduct its Orbital Flight Test 2 in early 2021. This is a redo of OFT-1, which which successfully launched and returned to Earth in December 2019 but failed to reach the ISS. A four-month review of the failed test flight uncovered 80 issues that must be rectified before OFT-2 can take off. Boeing plans to eat the $410 million cost for OFT-2 rather than charge taxpayers to retry a test it bungled the first time around.
Should OFT-2 successfully reach the ISS and safely return to Earth, the Starliner will be allowed to test crewed flight. Should those prove successful as well, Boeing should eventually achieve its space flight certification from NASA, enabling it to participate in the Commercial Crew Program where it will shuttle as many as seven astronauts at a time up to the space station.