Why Boeing Starliner’s Airbag Landing Is a Bigger Deal Than Failed ISS Docking

Last week’s launch of the Boeing Starliner capsule failed to do one of the two things it has been designed to do: dock with the International Space Station (ISS). But this failure was turned into victory a few days later, when the capsule achieved something no other space capsule did before.
Boeing Starliner soft landing 3 photos
Photo: Boeing
Boeing Starliner soft landingBoeing Starliner soft landing
Ever since the dawn of the space program, crew-carrying capsules have landed on water, to ensure a softer impact and better chances of survival for the crew. This approach worked wonderfully, and to date no astronaut was lost on splashdown.

But this landing approach will change once Boeing Starliner gets cleared.

On Sunday, December 22. at 7:58 a.m. EST, the Starliner made a soft landing on solid ground, at the White Sands Space Harbor in New Mexico, using airbags and marking the first such landing of a crew-capable ship in history.

The speed of the craft was reduced prior to touchdown by the deployment of its three main parachutes. Once a certain altitude was reached, the airbags blew, bringing the craft down with no major issues.

“Congratulations to the NASA and Boeing teams on a bullseye landing of the Starliner. The hardest parts of this orbital flight test were successful,” said in a statement NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“This is why we conduct these tests, to learn and improve our systems. The information gained from this first mission of Starliner will be critical in our efforts to strengthen NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and return America’s human spaceflight capability.”

The White Sands facility is the place where the same capsule will be landing with humans onboard possibly as soon as next year. Moving the landing site from the ocean to the heart of America means easier recovery of the crew, and faster response times in the event of an emergency.

As for the error that led to Starliner missing the rendezvous with the ISS in orbit, it’s not something that cannot be overcome, and it is exactly why tests are being done in the first place. In fact, this exact same capsule will be the one used to fly humans into orbit in 2020.

One of the women who will fly it, NASA astronaut Suni Williams, nicknamed it Calypso, after the ship of explorer Jacques Cousteau, so probably this is how it will be known from now on.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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