Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Boeing Identifies Landing Sites for Its CST-100 Starliner Spacecraft

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner landing on airbags. Credit: Boeing

The first few flights of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner commercial crew capsule will likely land on expansive desert plains in New Mexico or Utah, according to a former astronaut charged with developing the spacecraft’s operations scheme. Boeing is still finalizing a list of five candidate landing sites in the Western United States, but the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah will initially be the prime return locations, said Chris Ferguson, deputy manager of the CST-100 Starliner program.

The capsules will parachute to airbag-cushioned landings after each mission, beginning with the CST-100’s first test flights in 2017. Boeing is developing the program under a $4.2 billion contract with NASA, which also has an agreement with SpaceX to give the agency two independent vehicles to ferry astronauts between Earth and the International Space Station.

“We don’t enjoy the tremendous cross range with a capsule vehicle that we had with the space shuttle,” said Ferguson, a two-time shuttle commander who flew on the final shuttle flight in 2011. “That’s why we need a few more sites to give us the landing opportunities over the course of the year that we need. With five sites, we can get about 450 opportunities to land every year.”

That’s assuming no bad weather and stable ground for the capsule’s airbag landing. Ferguson said five landing sites gives Boeing enough options to ensure a landing the same day the spacecraft undocks from the space station, even accounting for poor conditions.

All of the candidates are in the Western United States, allowing the capsule to drop its disposable service module for a destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, Ferguson said.

The CST-100 Starliner’s first unpiloted demonstration flight is scheduled for May 2017, when the capsule will fly to the International Space Station, dock with the complex to deliver cargo, then return to Earth.

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