Boeing's Starliner Capsule Lands 'Gently' in Successful Parachute Test

High-altitude balloon with CST-100 Starliner parachute
A high-altitude balloon carried a test version of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner for a parachute drop test in February 2017. (Image credit: Boeing)

A commercial spacecraft scheduled to ferry humans to the International Space Station underwent a successful parachute test in New Mexico last month, according to NASA. 

The test featured a "boilerplate" version of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner, which is one of two vehicles expected to bring astronauts to the station as early as 2018. (You can see a video of the Starliner parachute test here.) The other is a human-rated version of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, which currently ferries cargo to the orbiting laboratory.

The parachutes were deployed at 40,000 feet (12 kilometers) —a typical altitude for a commercial airline flight — after being carried aloft by a Near Space Corp. helium balloon. The Starliner dropped from the balloon and took off at speeds of up to 300 mph (480 km/h), according to NASA's statement. [Boeing's CST-100 Space Capsule in Pictures

To stabilize the spacecraft, two drogue parachutes were deployed at 28,000 feet (8.5 km), according to the statement. The craft's pilot parachutes and main parachutes were subsequently deployed, before the heat shield (meant to protect the craft as it falls from space through Earth's atmosphere) was jettisoned at 4,500 feet (1,370 meters). Then, Starliner touched down "gently" in the desert sand.

"This parachute test, as well as the subsequent tests in Boeing's qualification test campaign, provides valuable data, because the test article has the same mass, outer mold line and center of gravity as the flight vehicle," said Mark Biesack, spacecraft systems lead for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, in the statement. "The high-fidelity data they receive from these tests will anchor predicted models of realistic parachute deployment." 

A view from the top hatch of Boeing's CST-100 Starliner boilerplate capsule after its parachutes deployed during a February 2017 test. (Image credit: Boeing)

For space station missions, Starliner will launch on an Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. At the end of each mission, Starliner will deploy large air bags to soften the blow upon landing. Boeing expects to use each spacecraft up to 10 times, ideally landing on solid ground to preserve reusability. In case of emergency, though, the spacecraft can parachute into the ocean.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: