Boeing reveals landing sites for Starliner

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The competition heats up: Boeing has revealed the prime landing sites for its manned Starliner capsule.

Boeing is still finalizing a list of five candidate landing sites in the Western United States, but the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground in Utah will initially be the prime return locations, said Chris Ferguson, deputy manager of the CST-100 Starliner program. The capsules will parachute to airbag-cushioned landings after each mission, beginning with the CST-100’s first test flights in 2017.

The article also outlines the overall status of Starliner, including what sounds to me like some scheduling and design concerns:

Boeing is taking a different approach to development of its human-rated spacecraft than SpaceX, which has already completed a pad abort test and plans an in-flight abort demo in late 2016. SpaceX is testing as it goes, while Boeing is doing more design work up front. “A lot of focus is on ensuring, at this phase, that we’ve got full rigor in all our processes and all of our designs, really trying to buy down the risk that something could come up downstream to perturbate either our design or our schedule,” Mulholland said.

Boeing plans no such in-flight escape test, and Mulholland said it can prove out the CST-100 abort system through wind tunnel analyses. “That’s our philosophy — to make sure we don’t run a test just to go run a test,” Mulholland said. “We make sure we fully understand all the requirements that we need to certify to, and we pick the best approach.”

Mulholland said the sequence of test flights in 2017 is tight, but Boeing’s schedule has margin to achieve the start of operational missions by the end of that year. Managers decided to move the pad abort test from early 2017 to August, a change that Mulholland said created more margin in the schedule leading to the first crew flight. [emphasis mine]

The lack of an in-flight test of the abort system is worrisome. This sounds just like NASA and Boeing in the shuttle era when they repeatedly made overconfident claims about the shuttle’s reliability and safety that were completely unrealistic, based not on tests but on computer simulations. The tight schedule also is a concern, especially because of the corporate culture of Boeing, which has a history of using these contracts to squeeze money from the government while putting a low priority on actually building anything.

I fear that might be what is happening here, especially since Boeing, unlike SpaceX, refused to build much of anything prior to the announcement of its Starliner contract. The company does not like to take any risks at all.


  • chris l

    If Boeing doesn’t have to deal with an escape system, why does SpaceX have to?

  • PeterF

    When I was a kid I used to climb some REALLY tall trees I figured it would be easier to get down if I had a parachute. I designed a great one based on a toy soldier with a chute. I even got an old army chute backpack from a neighbor that had been a paratrooper (sans chute that I think his mom made into a dress). My first test was from a second floor porch. I abandoned the parachute development program based on the results of that test.

    I wouldn’t be comfortable riding in any vehicle relying on a safety device that had never been tested.

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