Boeing’s final Starliner parachute tests take it closer to astronaut flights

Bringing a space capsule back to Earth is a delicate process, with complex parachute systems playing a key role in ensuring a soft touchdown.

NASA and Boeing announced this week that it’s successfully completed the final drop tests for Starliner’s parachutes ahead of a second orbital flight test for the space vehicle.

As you may recall, the Starliner’s first orbital flight test in December 2019 didn’t go so well, with the uncrewed spacecraft failing to make it into the correct orbit to take it to the International Space Station. It did, however, return to Earth intact.

The failed mission was put down to multiple software errors that Boeing has been working to fix. At the same time, the aerospace giant has been working to ensure the space capsule’s landing system, including the parachutes, are in good working order.

Starliner is the first U.S.-made orbital crew capsule designed to come down on land, contrasting with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which lands on water. The spacecraft uses a series of parachutes and airbags that deploy at specific altitudes to ensure a gentle touchdown.

In a typical return trip to Earth, Starliner will deploy two small parachutes to carry off the spacecraft’s forward heat shield and expose critical hardware that’s necessary for the rest of the landing process. The vehicle will then release two drogue parachutes to help it slow down and stabilize, followed by the deployment of three small pilot parachutes that pull out the spacecraft’s three main parachutes. These main parachutes further slow the spacecraft in the final stages and, together with the landing airbags, should ensure a comfortable touchdown for the crew.

During a total of six drop tests over White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, Boeing attached a Starliner test article — essentially a contraption with similar weight and dimensions as the Boeing-built spacecraft — and used a high-altitude balloon to release the capsule and parachutes from various heights.

To be certain the landing system will be able to cope with a range of scenarios, some of the tests were set up in a way that made different parachutes fail on descent. While the parachute tests were hailed a success, Boeing said it will work on further improving its main parachute by enhancing the strength of certain suspension lines within each canopy.

NASA and Boeing are now making final preparations for Starliner’s Orbital Flight Test-2, planned for the first half of next year. If this second attempt at sending the capsule to the space station goes to plan, the Starliner’s first crewed space flight is expected to take place several months later.

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