Boeing CST-100 Conducts Touchdown Tests at NASA Langley

Dirt flies out as the mock-up of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner lands as part of testing on the spacecraft's landing system including airbags designed to absorb the shock of impact. (Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)
Dirt flies out as the mock-up of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner lands as part of testing on the spacecraft’s landing system including airbags designed to absorb the shock of impact. (Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)

By Sasha Ellis,
NASA’s Langley Research Center, Virginia

Hoisted about 30 feet 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 stabilize the spacecraft.

A Starliner mock-up is hoisted about 30 feet above the ground inside a gantry at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia before being released as part of testing on the spacecraft's landing systems. (Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)
A Starliner mock-up is hoisted about 30 feet above the ground inside a gantry at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia before being released as part of testing on the spacecraft’s landing systems. (Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)

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.

A mock-up of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner is seen with its airbags deflated following touch down. The airbags deflate to absorb the impact of touch down. (Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)
A mock-up of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is seen with its airbags deflated following touch down. The airbags deflate to absorb the impact of touch down. (Credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)

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, analyzing 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 105-pound woman and a 220-pound 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.

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  • ReSpaceAge

    Sure feels like 1960s all over again.

    Landing in the desert?

    Why don’t they just fire their draco thrusters and use GPS to land on a helicopter pad?

  • JamesG

    Because those were not spec’ed by the customer.

  • Emmet Ford

    How can it be that SpaceX is ahead of Boeing in the race to launch crew, yet all we ever see from NASA PR is stuff about what Boeing has been doing lately? Nothing about SpaceX. Not a peep since the launch platform abort, that I can recall. There is a disconnect here. The stuff we are being spoon fed does not add up. Why doesn’t it add up? Am I mistaken? If I’m not mistaken then why are no journalists posing this question in timely thought pieces, to say nothing of digging for the truth?

    Maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe there have been NASA PR stories about all the nifty things SpaceX is doing and I have simply forgotten them. Maybe there have been no such PR pieces, but it’s because SpaceX is vetoing such disclosures and NASA is honoring the veto because they are just purchasing a service and it’s not really their show. Maybe all the space journalists know the answer to this question but have just neglected to write about it because it’s something fairly innocuous so what’s the point of ruffling feathers.

    Whatever is going on, it’s certainly a mystery to me. But I am left with the impression that a shoe will drop at some point. Am I the only one?

  • windbourne

    spacex was way way ahead. The loss of the F9 set them back, but they are still ahead.

  • windbourne

    of course, considering that this is a cst-100 and not a dragon might have a little bit to don about why no draco thruster.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Yup, 60 percent more money, for the bare minimum in capability. Maximize that development profit.

  • mlc449

    Yeah, and that paint-job sure isn’t an attempt Boeing to invoke Apollo in any way at all…….:p

  • mlc449

    Going by the testing schedule of SpaceX/Boeing and what has been shown thus far I would argue both are level in terms of development. Dragon V2 is also going through testing stages as well.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Marketing to the wrong generation

  • mlc449

    Constant evocation of the Apollo era and moon landings is wrong IMO. They were undoubtedly stunning achievements of their day but it should be remembered that was over four decades ago. Some people might like reminiscing over past glories but personally I see no point in that. Time to start creating new Apollo moments for the 21st century.

  • Emmet Ford

    That is the vaguely agreed upon understanding, but I don’t see much to underpin it. Boeing recently adjusted their schedule, shifting everything to the right, and SpaceX didn’t. But does that really say anything about their relative progress or just speak to their differing corporate cultures?

  • Paul_Scutts

    What do you call a 105-pound woman? Either a girl or a helpline that specializes in severe cases of anorexia.

  • Hug Doug

    The black and white squares are tracking patterns. They make it easy to see and later, precisely calculate how much roll, yaw, and pitch occurred during the test.

  • mlc449

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • duheagle

    Form, as they say, follows function.