Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which could soon be transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), took flight for the first time on Monday.
The event tested Starliner’s launch abort system, which is designed to propel the capsule away from the rocket if there’s an emergency situation during lift-off. Boeing deemed the mission a success, even though one of Starliner’s three parachutes failed to deploy as the capsule came down in the desert.
Part of NASA’s commercial crew program, the Starliner could be used to taking astronauts to the ISS as early as next year.
Monday’s test, which took place at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, involved an uncrewed Starliner firing up its four launch abort engines, as well as several orbital maneuvering and attitude control thrusters, to push the capsule a mile into the sky and a mile north of the test stand from which it launched.
A video (above) released by Boeing shows the crew capsule blasting off, with 190,000 pounds of thrust pushing it to a stomach-churning 650 mph in a mere five seconds.
Fifteen seconds later, the Starliner deploys its forward heat shield and parachutes, with the service module separating from the crew capsule shortly after. As the capsule floats down to terra firma, we can see that only two of the three parachutes have opened.
Boeing was keen to describe the malfunction as a “deployment anomaly, not a parachute failure.” It said it was too early to say why the parachute failed to open, but added that “having two of three deploy successfully is acceptable for the test parameters and crew safety.”
Summing up, Boeing said that in the test, its Starliner vehicle properly demonstrated the performance of “numerous integrated systems” required to successfully propel the capsule away from its launch vehicle in the event of an emergency.
Starliner could become the first American-made orbital crew capsule to come down on land, and features a design that should make it reusable up to 10 times.
But SpaceX is also aiming for the same accolade with its Crew Dragon capsule, which is also undergoing testing. Earlier this week SpaceX released a video showing a test landing in which only three of the capsule’s four parachutes opened. However, SpaceX said this was a deliberate move as it wanted to show that the capsule could still land safely even if one of the parachutes failed to deploy.