Boeing has successfully completed a major milestone on the path to launching astronauts to space aboard its CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. On January 10th, Boeing conducted a key test of Starliner’s parachute system over the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. This critical test paves the way for Starliner to carry out its first crewed mission to the International Space Station potentially later this year.
Starliner Parachutes Deployed Successfully During High-Altitude Airdrop
The recent test, dubbed “Qualification Advanced Development Drop 10” (QDAD 10), saw a mock Starliner capsule dropped from an altitude of 40,000 feet by a C-17 aircraft. Shortly after release from the plane, the capsule’s two main parachutes deployed successfully along with its three pilot parachutes.
In total, five parachutes helped guide the mock Starliner to the ground at the desired speed and orientation. Sensors on board the test vehicle collected data on parachute performance and inflation loads throughout the descent. Preliminary results indicate all systems functioned as expected.
“The successful test is a huge step closer to proving the safety of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft parachute system,” said Ramon Sanchez, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
This parachute system validation milestone was one of the final major hurdles Boeing had to clear ahead of the first crewed orbital flight test of Starliner. With the chutes receiving NASA’s stamp of approval, Boeing can now turn its focus towards final spacecraft assembly and launch preparations.
Key Details on The Parachute Test
- Test Date: January 10th, 2023
- Test Location: Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona
- Test Vehicle: Mock Starliner capsule weighing ~20,000 lbs
- Release Altitude: 40,000 feet
- Parachutes Deployed
- 2 Main parachutes – 116 ft diameter each
- 3 Smaller pilot chutes
- Total Descent Time: About 5 minutes
- Impact Speed: 14 mph
Successful Test Follows Previous Parachute Issues
This faultless parachute test comes on the heels of earlier difficulties Boeing faced with Starliner’s landing system during uncrewed test flights.
In 2019 and 2022, software issues during orbital flights prevented Starliner from completing its planned rendezvous and docking with the ISS. However, for both missions Starliner still performed a safe re-entry and landing under parachutes back on land.
Unfortunately, during the first uncrewed test flight in 2019, only 2 of 3 main parachutes deployed properly. The anomaly was eventually traced back to some faulty rigging of the parachute lines.
To address this problem and improve overall reliability, Boeing reinforced the parachute system with several upgrades including:
- Stronger main parachute canopy material
- Added redundancy in rigging lines
- Improved packaging methods
- Better sensors for inflation monitoring
These measure appear to have paid off based on the flawless performance witnessed across the board during this recent qualificiation test.
“Today’s successful test affirms we are on the path to meeting NASA’s stringent safety requirements,” said Mark Nappi, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program manager. With both SpaceX and now Boeing demonstrating end-to-end flight safety, NASA is looking forward to launching crew rotation missions to the International Space Station later this year.
Timeline of Starliner Parachute Testing Milestones
|1st uncrewed orbital flight test
|2 main chutes failed to deploy fully
|Parachute drop test from cargo plane
|Successful deployment & reefing
|High altitude parachute extraction test
|Main pilot chutes tangled
|2nd uncrewed orbital flight test
|Nominal chute operation
|Final qualification high-altitude drop test
|All parachutes functioned successfully
Astronaut Mission Could Occur As Early As Summer 2023
With the parachute milestone now satisfied, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is checked off on nearly all NASA verification requirements needed for regular crew rotation flights.
The only major task remaining is an end-to-end crewed demonstration mission to fully wring out all aspects of the vehicle from launch to docking to re-entry.
NASA and Boeing are currently targeting no earlier than June 2023 for lifting off this final test flight with astronauts aboard. The mission duration will last anywhere from 8 to 14 days from liftoff to landing.
Starliner Crewed Flight Test Objectives
- Launch on Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral
- Rendezvous and dock with Space Station
- Remain docked for 5-10 days
- Undock and perform various orbital maneuvers
- Re-enter atmosphere and land in western US
If all goes according to plan, NASA will officially certify Starliner to begin regular crew rotation missions after completion of the crewed flight. This would enable the vehicle to start transporting astronauts to space on an operational basis alongside rival SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
Outlook: Boosting ISS Crew Capacity
The successful parachute testing campaign paired with the imminent crewed launch puts Boeing firmly on track to fulfill its Commercial Crew contract with NASA.
Once certified, Starliner will give NASA the ability to add additional seats for astronauts on trips to and from the International Space Station. This enhanced crew capacity comes at a crucial time as the agency prepares to support expanded ISS operations and commercial activities in low Earth orbit.
While SpaceX has already activated this capability over the past couple years, having two independent crew transportation providers is considered vital from both a logistical and safety perspective.
“This milestone paves the way for the buildup of a formidable ‘taxi squad’ that will help keep the space station fully staffed and busy doing science,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA. “We’re thrilled to see our Commercial Crew partners meet these key objectives as we march toward regular flights to the laboratory.”
With the final pieces of the human spaceflight puzzle falling into place, NASA can soon reap the intended benefits of its decade-long effort to foster a commercial market for accessing low Earth orbit.
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