Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
White Sands Missile Range is playing a major role in a joint NASA-commercial venture to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The military base in southern New Mexico was the site last week for landing tests for Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner crew capsule and will be one of the landing sites for astronauts returning to Earth after space station missions.
Boeing and Space X are both working with NASA on the development of commercial crew ships to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, ending U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz vehicles it has used since the retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011.
“White Sands is involved with two big programmatic efforts involving the Starliner capsule,” Boeing Commercial Crew Program spokesman Josh Barrett told the Journal. “The tests … involve training for crews recovering the capsule, where they open up the hatch and pull the crew out.”
Boeing test pilot and former NASA space shuttle commander Chris Ferguson, and NASA crew members Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann – the crew for Starliner’s first manned-mission to the space station – were present for the testing, but did not participate.
“They were there as observers,” Barrett said.
White Sands is also the testing site for the Starliner’s pad abort system.
The tests are being conducted in the same location where NASA tested the abort system of the Orion crew capsule it is developing for its deep space program, Barrett said.
The tests will demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to escape an emergency on the launch pad.
“The system is designed to launch the vehicle a mile up and away from the launch site in case of an emergency,” he said.
NASA and Boeing are planning to launch Starliner on an unmanned mission from Cape Canaveral to the space station later this year, but Barrett said he couldn’t give a date.
“It will be this year,” he said. “It’s getting very close.”
The manned flights would follow if all goes well in the testing, but neither NASA nor Boeing have announced dates for the missions.
Two sites at White Sands are preferred landing sites for both the unmanned and manned missions, Barrett said. He said another potential landing site is in Utah.
Barrett said the equipment needed for capsule recovery would be stationed at the missile range, but the position of the space station at the time of the capsule’s departure would be one of the factors of where it will land.
“It’s extremely likely White Sands will be the landing site for multiple missions,” he said.
One of the landing sites will be in a location used as an alternative landing site during the space shuttle program, which Barrett said was in an area in the middle of the range. The other site is located on the northern part of the base.
Space X’s part of the venture has been delayed while it investigates the explosion of its Crew Dragon spacecraft during a ground test earlier this year.