Space

Boeing’s Starliner Will Attempt A First-Of-Its-Kind Landing For A U.S. Capsule

Watch out for Starliner’s unique landing as early as next week.

A spacecraft reentering Earth's atmosphere, emitting colorful contrails as it descends against a bac...
Boeing

Two astronauts will break from American spaceflight tradition next week, when their capsule drops down onto land, instead of splashing at sea.

As early as next Tuesday, the Boeing Starliner will undock from the International Space Station (ISS) with two astronauts inside. Instead of landing in the ocean, as their fellow NASA Commercial Crew Program partner, SpaceX, has been successfully doing with its Crew Dragon at least twice each year since 2020, Starliner will become the first and only American orbital crew capsule to touch down on land.

Capsules of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs landed in the ocean. The Space Shuttles touched down on land, but they coasted onto a runway, a much different approach.

An illustration of the Boeing Starliner landing on land.

Boeing

Fortunately, most modern astronauts have experience with soft landing in capsules on land. When the Space Shuttle retired in 2011, and up until Crew Dragon’s Demo-2 mission in 2020 restarted the launch of astronauts from American soil, the U.S. would pay for seats onboard Russian Soyuz capsules to get their astronauts to and from space. Soyuz would and still does touch down on land, over open terrain in Kazakhstan.

Soon it will be Starliner’s turn to utilize this approach. It is in the midst of its Crew Flight Test, which got underway when NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore successfully launched inside a Starliner called Calypso on June 5. The duo are now onboard the ISS, but as early as June 22, they’ll reboard Calypso to come home.

The Boeing Starliner is important because it provides dissimilar redundancy — a backup plan, in essence — for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. If SpaceX has a problem, or vice versa, the other company offers a different way for astronauts to continue visiting low-Earth orbit.

An illustration of the parachute and airbag sequence for Starliner’s landing.

Boeing

One difference is how their astronauts come home. Crew Dragon’s latest return from space for the Crew-7 mission in March delivered four astronauts to the calm waters off the coast of Florida. Teams on boats mobilized to fish the capsule out of the water, and onto a ship, where the hatch was successfully opened roughly 42 minutes after splashdown.

Both Starliner and Crew Dragon begin their descents with parachutes to slow them down.

When Calypso is about 3,000 feet off the ground, the heat shield on its base will jettison. This exposes the Starliner’s airbags. They’ll absorb the initial force of landing at touchdown.

According to NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who is part of the Starliner Commercial Crew Program, the Starliner can deploy an extra airbag if an emergency water landing must be made.

Boeing will only use this for emergencies, he adds. Salt water is abrasive. This makes refurbishing the capsule tough to do after exposure to the ocean. Landing on land is one way Boeing aims to have the reusable Starliner capsules ready on time with a six-month turnaround.

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