Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft has completed its fifth, final, and most dangerous parachute test. At an altitude of 40,000 ft (12,200 m), the boilerplate capsule was released from a balloon and dropped safely to the desert floor at the US Army's White Sands Missile Range with three of its six parachutes deliberately rigged to malfunction.
The recent qualification test is one of the last major milestones that will clear the Starliner for its first unmanned flight atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida in the next couple of months. The test mission will include a week-long stay at the International Space Station (ISS) followed by a controlled return to Earth and recovery.
If this first mission is successful, it may be followed by the first manned flight by Boeing astronaut Chris Ferguson, and NASA astronauts Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann before the end of the year – making them the first astronauts to lift off from American territory since the Space Shuttle was retired in 2011.
According to Boeing, the parachute test took four minutes, during which two drogue chutes and one of the main chutes was rigged to fail, demonstrating the ability of the remaining chutes made by Airborne Systems of Santa Ana, California, and the airbags from ILC Dover in Delaware to achieve a safe landing even in adverse conditions.
The company says that the White Sands landing is particularly important because, unlike previous US manned capsule missions, the Starliner is designed for ground landings and recoveries.
"Safety for our astronauts remains our singular focus and this successful landing in a difficult situation affirms the deep commitment of everyone on the team," says Boeing Starliner Vice President John Mulholland. "I want to thank our Starliner teammates, including NASA and the U.S. Army at White Sands, for their part in ensuring mission safety and success. With their contributions Starliner will venture to the International Space Station later this year and safely return home."
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