Boeing and SpaceX have traded the lead a few times in the race to send a crewed spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Initially, Boeing was the favorite due to its long history navigating the intricacies of government contracts, but SpaceX pulled ahead on the strength of the Falcon 9 and a fuel leak that delayed Boeing. Now, SpaceX is looking at a delay after the loss of a Dragon 2 capsule during engine tests. Meanwhile, Boeing is back on track after completing its final and most challenging parachute test.
Boeing’s CST-100 “Starliner” is a reusable spacecraft that builds on the design heritage of the Apollo command module. It has room for a crew of seven and can launch atop four different rockets: the Atlas V, Delta IV, Falcon9, and Vulcan.
Testing has been underway in some form since 2011, but the timeline has slipped repeatedly. Boeing finally seems to be in the home stretch after the latest test. Being attached the CST-100 to a balloon above the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range last week. After reaching an altitude of 40,000 ft (12,200 meters), the balloon dropped the CST-100. The capsule has six parachutes to gently lower it to the ground following atmospheric reentry. Unlike past crewed vehicles, the CST-100 isn’t limited to water landings.
In this four-minute test, three of the six parachutes had been intentionally disabled — two drogue chutes and one main. Boeing reports that the Starliner still managed a safe landing at White Sands thanks to its remaining parachutes and airbag system. SpaceX reportedly failed a similar parachute test with its Dragon II capsule. This was separate from the testing that led to the test stand explosion.
This success keeps Boeing on track to complete its first launch test later this summer. This mission will be uncrewed, with the CST-100 maneuvering autonomously to the ISS and then returning to Earth. SpaceX completed a similar mission several months ago before the now-infamous explosion.
If Boeing nails the uncrewed test, it could be ready for a NASA-approved crew mission in November of this year. The first passengers will be Michael Fincke, Christopher Ferguson, and Nicole Aunapu Mann. SpaceX has not announced a new testing schedule yet, but the delay could be measured in months.