Boeing capsule completes major flight test in desert

News, Space

Boeing’s capsule for astronauts has undergone its first major flight test, shooting a mile into the air then parachuting back to the New Mexico desert.

The Starliner capsule carried no crew, just a test dummy for the one-and-a-half-minute test of the launch abort system.

Only two of the three main parachutes opened, but both NASA and Boeing said astronauts would have been safe if aboard.

The abort system is designed to provide a fast getaway for a crew, if there is an emergency on the Florida pad or in flight.

For its next test, Boeing plans to launch a Starliner to the International Space Station next month, without a crew.

All three astronauts assigned to the first crew flight – targeted for next year – were present for Monday’s test.

“We hope we never need to use this system,” said NASA astronaut Mike Fincke.

“But in case we ever have any trouble aboard the beautiful Atlas V on the launch pad, we know after today’s test that we’ll be able to get off safely.”

Boeing Capsule Test
Parachutes guide the Starliner capsule to the ground (NASA via AP)

SpaceX — NASA’s other commercial crew partner — successfully launched a Dragon capsule to the space station in March. That capsule carried a test dummy and supplies; SpaceX aims to put astronauts on board sometime early next year.

Boeing also is shooting for an early 2020 launch of astronauts to the space station.

Whether SpaceX or Boeing, it will be the first time Americans launch into orbit from the US since NASA’s last space shuttle flight in 2011.

US astronauts have been hitching rides on Russian rockets, costing NASA tens of millions of dollars per seat.

During Monday’s test at the Army’s White Sands Missile Range, Boeing counted down to zero, then the Starliner’s four launch abort engines fired.

The capsule, launched from a test stand, accelerated about 650 mph in five seconds flat.

The capsule soared nearly a mile into the air and a mile downrange, before the parachutes and then airbags inflated seconds before touchdown.

Only two of the three big red, white and blue parachutes deployed, but both NASA and Boeing said that was acceptable for test purposes. The issue should not delay the next test flight, company officials noted.

“We are thrilled with the preliminary results, and now we have the job of really digging into the data and analysing whether everything worked as we expected,” NASA’s commercial crew manager, Kathy Lueders, said in a statement.

Chris Price
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