Hoisted about 30ft. in the air, a mockup of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft awaits its encounter with a pad full of dirt. “Three, two, one” projects over the loud speaker just before the spacecraft is released and makes a loud thud when meeting the dirt. Six attached airbags absorb much of the landing impact and stabilise the spacecraft.
Boeing and NASA engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, kicked off an initial series of six land landing qualification tests to simulate what the actual spacecraft and crew may experience after returning to Earth from the International Space Station. The spacecraft is being developed in collaboration with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
According to Boeing test engineer Preston Ferguson, the team at Langley is simulating the worst possible landing velocities and angles the spacecraft could experience while making its landing in the American Southwest.
“We have to verify the capability of landing at enveloping capsule and soil conditions to make sure that the vehicle will be stable and that the crew will be safe under expected parachute landing conditions,” Ferguson explained.
Before beginning the land test series, the team wrapped up the last of 14 abort water landing scenarios at Langley’s 20-foot-deep Hydro Impact Basin. Each scenario simulated an unlikely emergency during launch or return from the station. It also helped engineers understand and test the airbag and up-righting systems that protect astronauts.
After collecting, analysing and implementing the data from both the water and land tests, Langley and Boeing will install two anthropomorphic test dummies inside the capsule. This second series of land tests with a simulated test crew will help NASA and Boeing understand how land landings will impact the crew by directly measuring the accelerations from instrumentation within the dummies.
The test dummies represent a 105lb woman and a 220lb man and are currently being used for water impact tests of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which are also conducted at Langley’s Hydro Impact Basin.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program contracted Boeing and SpaceX to build the Starliner and Crew Dragon, respectively, as part of the effort to return America's ability to launch crews to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.