Boeing has successfully completed the final parachute test of the Starliner capsule. Despite some deliberately disabled parachutes, the test vehicle landed as planned. This brings Boeing closer to the point that it can transport astronauts to the ISS with the Starliner.
According to Boeing, this fifth qualification test of the Starliner’s parachute system was the most difficult to date. Two parachutes were deliberately disabled, and then a test version of the Starliner was released at an altitude of 12.2 km. The descent to the ground took four minutes, with the remaining parachutes doing their job and the capsule landing on schedule in the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range. This site will be the main landing site for Starliner space missions; Unlike the SpaceX counterpart, the Boeing capsule does not land in the water, but on land.
According to John Mulholland, the vice president of Boeing’s Starliner project, this successful test means a trip to the International Space Station will become a reality later this year and the capsule will return safely to Earth. Boeing initially planned to launch the unmanned Starliner aboard an Atlas V rocket in August, although it indicated earlier this month that it may be delayed to September. After that, the first manned flight could take place by the end of the year, Boeing says. However, that will depend heavily on, among other things, the results of the first unmanned test flight.
The Starliner was developed for NASA’s Commercial Crew program, where astronauts go to the ISS in private space capsules. The program is intended to give the US the opportunity to go to the ISS itself again and thereby break the dependence on the expensive Russian Soyuz seats. SpaceX is also part of the Commercial Crew program and has developed its own capsule, the Crew Dragon; in the long run, both capsules should transport astronauts to the ISS.
SpaceX is slightly ahead of Boeing on schedule, as Elon Musk’s company already conducted its first unmanned test flight in March. It successfully docked to the ISS and landed back in the sea just under a week later. There is also a good chance that both projects will experience a certain delay, partly due to their complexity. That’s probably one of the reasons NASA is considering buying more Russian seats in the Soyuz rocket. However, it is uncertain whether that will yield tickets to the ISS soon enough. As a result, too much delay can create a hole, so that NASA can temporarily not reach the ISS.