In 2014, Boeing was awarded a contract through NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program to provide commercial launch services to the International Space Station (ISS). To this end, they have been busy developing the CST-100 Starliner, a space capsule that will be able to deliver cargo and crews of up to 7 astronauts to the ISS. On December 20th, 2019, the Starliner passed a major milestone when it conducted an uncrewed test.
While an error prevented this Starliner (designated Calypso) from docking with the ISS as planned, the space capsule still managed to make it to space and land safely near White Sands, New Mexico. This makes it the first crew capsule to touchdown on land in the United States. To celebrate this accomplishment, Boeing recently released a highlight reel of footage taken by cameras inside the Calypso during the flight test.
The last time an in-flight escape system test for a crew capsule took place was during the Apollo program, in 1966. Now, you can watch live as Blue Origin tests the escape system for their New Shepard rocket on Wednesday, October 5, 2016 at 10:45 a.m. ET. The test was originally planned for today (Tuesday) but was postponed because of inclement weather.
You can watch live here:
As founder Jeff Bezos described the test, “Our next flight is going to be dramatic, no matter how it ends.” If all goes well, the crew capsule (empty, this time) should land rather gently. The likely end for the rocket booster, however, will be its destruction in a ball of flames.
Although the New Shepard has already launched successfully four times since November 2015, this fifth flight will test the system to protect future passengers from any anomaly during launch. Unlike the Apollo escape system that used an escape “tower” motor located on top of the capsule to ‘pull’ the crew cabin away from a failing booster, New Shepard’s escape system is mounted underneath the capsule, to ‘push’ the capsule away from a potentially exploding booster.
As the video below from Blue Origin explains, “Like the airbag in your car, this full envelope capsule escape system is always there if needed.” Bezos also described the test in an email:
About 45 seconds after liftoff at about 16,000 feet, we’ll intentionally command escape. Redundant separation systems will sever the crew capsule from the booster at the same time we ignite the escape motor. The escape motor will vector thrust to steer the capsule to the side, out of the booster’s path. The high acceleration portion of the escape lasts less than two seconds, but by then the capsule will be hundreds of feet away and diverging quickly. It will traverse twice through transonic velocities – the most difficult control region – during the acceleration burn and subsequent deceleration. The capsule will then coast, stabilized by reaction control thrusters, until it starts descending. Its three drogue parachutes will deploy near the top of its flight path, followed shortly thereafter by main parachutes.
While SpaceX successfully tested their escape system in May 2015, it wasn’t an in-flight test. The Crew Dragon spacecraft abort system was launched off a specially built platform at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40 in Florida. The engines fired for about six seconds, instantly producing about 15,000 pounds of thrust each and lifting the spacecraft out over the Atlantic Ocean and parachuting safely into the water.
Bezos said that while they’d really like to retire this New Shepard booster and put it in a museum, that’s probably not a possibility.
“It’s the first ever rocket booster to fly above the Karman line into space and then land vertically upon the Earth,” he said. “But the booster was never designed to survive an in-flight escape. The capsule escape motor will slam the booster with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust. The aerodynamic shape of the vehicle quickly changes from leading with the capsule to leading with the ring fin, and this all happens at maximum dynamic pressure.”
Monte Carlo simulations show there’s some chance the booster can survive those stresses and land vertically as it’s done previously. But probably not. There will still be propellant on board and if it lands hard, as expected, Bezos said “its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”
NASA has lost its reserved time at a range in Hawaii to test a saucer-shaped vehicle that one day could help spacecraft get on the Red Planet safely.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) was supposed to take to the air this month, but bad weather means that officials won’t get to test the vehicle’s flight and landing abilities before their range time expires tomorrow (Saturday).
The plan had been to test LDSD’s new inflatable technology, which would put a buffer around its heat shield to slow the speed down when it was still high in the atmosphere. NASA wanted to send the test device up on a weather balloon to 120,000 feet (36,600 meters) before releasing it for a short powered flight to 180,000 feet (54,900 meters). LDSD would then inflate the device and subsequently, open up a large parachute for the drop to Earth. Now it looks like that won’t happen until later this month.
“There were six total opportunities to test the vehicle, and the delay of all six opportunities was caused by weather,” stated Mark Adler, the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project manager. “We needed the mid-level winds between 15,000 and 60,000 feet [4,500 meters to 18,230 meters] to take the balloon away from the island. While there were a few days that were very close, none of the days had the proper wind conditions.”
While officials don’t know when they will next get time at the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, they’re hoping to start the testing near the end of June. NASA emphasized that the bad weather was quite unexpected, as the team had spent two years looking at wind conditions worldwide and determined Kauai was the best spot for both the wind and also doing the test over the ocean, away from where people live.
If the technology works, NASA says it will be useful for landing heavier spacecraft on the Red Planet. This is one of the challenges the agency must surmount if it launches human missions to the planet, which would require more equipment and living supplies than the rover missions currently roaming the Martian surface.