Science

Teams in New Mexico prepare to land a Boeing Starliner capsule on Wednesday (photo)

The Boeing Starliner capsule is due to return to Earth on Wednesday (May 25), and ground crews are preparing to welcome the spacecraft home.

The Starliner launched on May 19 from the Space Force Station at Cape Canaveral in Florida and successfully docked with the International Space Station (ISS) a day later. The Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2) uncrewed capsule mission will soon conclude with a scheduled departure on Wednesday and subsequent landing at the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico.

To prepare, the teams held a dress rehearsal for the Starliner landing on May 18 at White Sands Spaceport, which previously served as a space shuttle runway, shuttle pilot training ground and rocket research test site.

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Another view of the OFT-2 landing and recovery dress rehearsal at the White Sands Missile Range on May 18, 2022.

Another view of the OFT-2 landing and recovery dress rehearsal at the White Sands Missile Range on May 18, 2022. (Image credit: Ann Marie Chadima, White Sands Missile Range Public Relations Department)

Weather is an important factor

Carla James works for the Materiel Testing Department as a test officer in the aerospace division at WSMR.

James noted in an Army news release that she and her colleagues would determine the Starliner’s trajectory on the day of the expected landing. The WSMR meteorological department will provide weather data that they will collect using weather balloons. Bad weather on the day of Starliner’s departure could delay the return of the spacecraft or cause the OFT-2 crew to move to another landing site.

Incidentally, this team identified five potential landing sites. Two are at WSMR (Space Harbor and the 26 Range Road site), one is at the Dugway Test Site in Utah, another is at Willcox Playa in Arizona, and a third is at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Teams from WSMR, Boeing and NASA are preparing for a possible Starliner landing at any of the missile range sites, the army said in a press release. These teams also have contingency plans that can be completed within hours if the capsule lands earlier than originally thought.

OFT-2 rescue crews plan to monitor Starliner landing day activities with drones.

OFT-2 rescue crews plan to monitor Starliner landing day activities with drones. (Image credit: Ann Marie Chadima, White Sands Missile Range Public Relations Department)

Landing sequence

The upcoming landing will be the second landing of the Starliner capsule at White Sands after the space mission. The first occurred in December 2019 to complete the initial OFT, which ended prematurely after Starliner failed to rendezvous with the space station as planned. This landing was the first human capsule landing in US history since a space mission. (NASA’s Apollo spacecraft splashed down in the ocean, as the SpaceX Dragon crew and cargo capsules do now.)

In November 2019, the Starliner also successfully landed at the WSMR while testing its emergency engines, which are designed to get the ship to safety in the event of an emergency during launch.

On the landing day of OFT-2, the parachute sequence will begin at about 30,000 feet (9 kilometers) above the ground when the Starliner drops the forward heat shield protecting the parachutes during re-entry, according to Boeing.

The two narcotic parachutes will start to slow down the Starliner and then detach. The three main parachutes then open and inflate. When the Starliner is about 3,000 feet (0.9 km) above the ground, its airbags inflate. Upon landing, these airbags absorb the initial landing forces.

On landing day of OFT-2, rescue teams will make sure to get close to the Starliner, making sure there are no high levels of toxic hydrazine fuel around the capsule.

On landing day of OFT-2, rescue teams will make sure to get close to the Starliner, making sure there are no high levels of toxic hydrazine fuel around the capsule. (Image credit: Ann Marie Chadima, White Sands Missile Range Public Relations Department)

Ground restoration work

On the day the Starliner lands, according to the Army report, the drone will film a bird’s-eye view of the earth remediation operation, showing various vehicles heading towards the capsule after it lands.

Some of these vehicles will likely belong to the WSMR Garrison Fire Department, which has been trained to take part in the boarding and evacuation process. In the future, firefighters will be trained on how to handle a returned Starliner when astronauts are on board – this could happen before the end of the year if all goes well with OFT-2.

Boeing is required to ensure the safe approach and opening of the Starliner after landing. Boeing personnel in protective suits will monitor the levels of toxic hydrazine fuel present around the capsule and determine where to place a beachhead.

“Upwind or downwind plays a key role in choosing a location,” James said.

Leonard David is the author of Moon Rush: The New Space Race published by National Geographic in May 2019. David, a longtime contributor to Space.com, has been writing about the space industry for over five decades. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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