“Our philosophy has always been to test the hardware of the system together to see how all of the pieces interact,” Starliner Landing System Manager Mike McCarley said in a statement Monday. “Our vehicle cannot fit in an airplane, so the only way to lift a test article high enough to simulate a complete landing system sequence is to use a very large balloon.”
To make sure the parachute system is rugged enough to deliver astronauts to the ISS even in the event of a crash, Starliner engineers threw in a few wrinkles in this final drop test. They first prevented one of the heat shield parachutes from deploying, and then also prevented one of the two stabilizer parachutes from opening. Regardless of these issues, the capsule’s three main parachutes deployed without incident and gently guided the Starliner to the ground.
Even though the test was successful, Boeing engineers are already planning further improvements to the parachutes. “By increasing the strength of their materials and their attachment points, we improve the reliability of the system with only minor adjustments,” Dan Niedermaier, Starliner’s flight test manager, said in a statement. “As our landing system continues to operate successfully, Boeing is committed to developing the safest orbital crew capsule possible and these additional tests are helping us achieve that goal.”
Next, the Starliner is due to perform its Orbital Flight Test 2 in early 2021. This is a redesign of the OFT-1, which was successfully launched and returned to Earth in December 2019 but did not failed to reach the ISS. A four-month review of the failed test flight revealed 80 issues that must be corrected before the OFT-2 can take off. Boeing plans to eat the cost of $ 410 million for OFT-2 rather than charging taxpayers to retry a test, it failed the first time.
If the OFT-2 manages to reach the ISS and returns to Earth safely, the Starliner will be cleared to test crewed flight. If these also prove to be successful, Boeing should eventually obtain its space flight certification from NASA, allowing it to participate in the commercial crew program where it will carry up to seven astronauts at a time to the space station.