Boeing’s CST-100 conducts a successful full landing system test

by Chris Bergin

The CST-100 crew transport vehicle successfully conducted its second parachute test this week, safely demonstrating its entire landing system via a 14,000 feet descent on to a dry lake bed in Nevada. CST-100 is one of the spacecraft fighting for the right to be the commercial crew carrier for NASA astronauts heading to the International Space Station (ISS).

Boeing CST-100:

Boeing are currently working through their CCDev-2 (Commercial Crew) contract milestones – worth over $92m – centered around their CST-100 capsule, a vehicle configurable to carry up to seven crew/passengers or an equivalent combination of passengers and pressurized cargo to LEO destinations, including the ISS.

Per the milestone schedule, testing is being conducted on both the capsule and the integrated stack, made up of the CST-100 and United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V – the launch vehicle of choice – to complete the data gathering process for the Preliminary Design Review (PDR).

A total of 25 milestones are listed in Boeing’s overview for CCDev-2, although it was heavily censored, listing only 11 of the milestones. By the conclusion of the CCDev-2 funding period, Boeing claim they will be 80 percent complete on their Critical Design Review (CDR) phase.

For the test, a helicopter lifted the CST-100 crew capsule to about 14,000 feet above the Delmar Dry Lake Bed near Alamo, Nevada. A drogue parachute deployment sequence was initiated, followed by deployment of the main parachute. The capsule descended to a smooth ground landing, cushioned by six inflated air bags.

HDT Airborne Systems of Solon, Ohio, designed, fabricated and integrated the parachute system, including the two drogue parachutes. ILC Dover of Frederica, Delaware, designed and fabricated the landing air bag system.

This second test comes just a month after the initial test on April 3, validating the architecture and deployment of the parachute system, characterized pyrotechnic shock loads, confirmed parachute size and design, and identified potential forward compartment packaging and deployment issues. The company inspected and re-packed the full parachute system for this second test.

Notably, Boeing’s own schedule from last summer showed the Parachute Drop Test demo was the books for April, 2012, meaning Boeing have not suffered from slips in their major milestone manifest. So while CST-100 may not have the media attention of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, or the “wow factor” of SNC’s Dream Chaser, it is clearly making steady – and on schedule – progress.

“This second parachute drop test validates Boeing’s innovative system architecture and deployment plan,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing Commercial Programs. “Boeing’s completion of this milestone reaffirms our commitment to provide safe, reliable and affordable crewed access to space.”

The company has scheduled additional tests to be performed in 2012 that will provide more data on elements of the spacecraft’s design.

“Boeing’s parachute demonstrations are a clear sign NASA is moving in the right direction of enabling the American aerospace transportation industry to flourish under this partnership,” NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Manager Ed Mango said. “The investments we’re making now are enabling this new path forward of getting our crews to LEO and potentially the space station as soon as possible.”

Boeing performed this test with the support of its Commercial Crew team, including Bigelow Aerospace, which played a key role by providing the capsule test article and associated electronics as well as supporting the test itself.

“We’re thrilled to see the robust progress that is being made via the Commercial Crew program,” said Robert T. Bigelow, company founder and president. “This successful test provides further proof that the commercial crew initiative represents the most expeditious, safe and affordable means of getting America flying in space again.”

Boeing have said on record they could be ready to fly a crewed mission in 2015. However, NASA’s leadership insist that 2017 is a more realistic date, due to lower-than-expected funding within the NASA budget cycles.

Regardless, at this current juncture, Boeing remain on schedule with their test objectives and are already in the early stages of setting up CST-100’s new home, inside the former Shuttle Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-3), following a NASA agreement with Space Florida – the State’s aerospace economic development agency – last October.

A second OPF is understood to be close to becoming the home for another spacecraft, after it was revealed that Atlantis – the current occupier of OPF-1 – may have to vacate the facility and head to the VAB – in order to make way for CST-100’s new – but as yet unnamed – neighbor.

(Images via Boeing)

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