BISBEE — In an attempt to bring back space capsules on land rather than ditching multi–billion dollar vehicles in the Pacific Ocean, Boeing and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration have worked together to locate ideal landing sites in the southwestern desert.
The Willcox Playa could be the site for a landing after a second, unmanned test flight of the capsule to the International Space Station later this summer.
In a work session March 23 with the county Board of Supervisors, Boeing Southwest Region National Strategy Manager Mark Gaspers and Boeing Ground, Landing and Recovery Manager Marty Linde provided an update to the space program undertaken by Boeing and the landing site on the Willcox Playa.
Gaspers said they wanted to bring the county the latest information on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and talk a bit about the NASA Commercial Crew Program, which provides travel to and from the International Space Station.
Linde was reminded of the presentation done in 2019 and a town hall meeting in Willcox about the use of the playa for a landing site and appreciated the support of the county, Fort Huachuca and the townsfolk.
He said, “What’s been really nice is the cooperation of the county and community. The town hall had so many good questions, we stayed for two or three hours just answering folks’ questions. And, the Apache power plant stepped up and said we’ve got a place to store your equipment to work the recovery and offered access to the south end of the playa. “
Linde investigated a number of areas across the Southwest within the required 1,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean and found the Willcox Playa to be one of four locations where a landing could be done safely. The other sites are two at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah.
The county site is preferred because of the salt flats of the playa, which provide the needed surface for landing the Starliner safely, said Linde.
“Willcox provides us in a year’s time with 97 opportunities to land and has some overlapping opportunities with White Sands. It shows how important you are as it provides a good number of opportunities and Willcox will just as likely be chosen as of the other sites.
“You filled a geographic need with a clear 2.5-mile circle with absolutely nothing in it. Not a tree, not a boulder, not a building — absolutely nothing so we would have a safe environment for a landing.”
Wind and the monsoon season play a role in determining a landing site.
“We don’t want to land in the mud because it makes the recovery that much harder,” he said.
If the playa is determined to be the best landing site for the Starliner, Boeing will notify the county, the nearby residents and Fort Huachuca, he said. The ground team starts looking at all the options about 30 days out from a scheduled landing. The team will begin getting the necessary equipment together and the county will be advised that the playa will be a primary or secondary landing site. A secondary landing site is always planned in case something prevents the Starliner from landing at the first selected site.
Linde said it would be hard to forecast the weather, particularly windy days, so there would not be much advanced notice when it came to determine at which site the capsule would land. The county could know a few days ahead or few hours depending on circumstances. Since the teams that retrieve the capsule are from out of state, local authorities may have to secure the landing site and be prepared for a variety of problems.
Linde said some local roads could be closed for as long as five hours or more as the craft is cleared of the crew members.
A test flight in December 2019 failed when a software glitch prevented the capsule from docking with the ISS. The problem was resolved and now the Starliner is set for another unmanned test flight in summer, in which the space capsule would remain docked for about two weeks. The Starliner spacecraft will be launched again from Cape Canaveral by an Atlas VN22 rocket to dock with the ISS.
Later this year, if the second test proves successful, the three-man crew will take the maiden flight to the ISS. Once docked, the crew leaves the capsule to perform assigned tasks for a period of time. What is learned on the ISS are the things needed for manned missions to the moon, which NASA hopes to achieve by 2024, and onto Mars once a base is established on the moon, Linde said.
As the crew module leaves, the crew will guide the space capsule around the ISS to obtain video of the condition of the station before heading home.
If the first manned flight is successful, a post certification crew will go up for a final check and the system will be approved by NASA for future flights, Linde said.
After each use, the capsule is sent back to Cape Canaveral to be readied for flight and it is possible the capsule could be reused 10 times, he added.
The landing process starts at 30,000 feet as parts of the capsule are jettisoned, Linde explained. The forward heat shield which sits atop the capsule is released so the parachutes can be deployed. At about 3,000 feet the base heat shield, which keeps the 3,000-degree temperature of re-entry from damaging the capsule and harming the crew, will be jettisoned. That allows the landing air bags to inflate. An outer band of the air bags actually deflates on ground contact as it absorbs most of the shock of hitting the ground.
There are also smaller pieces which also fall off, like the shields that covered the parachutes. These pieces weigh from four ounces to one pound and should fall within the 2.5 miles radius of the landing site. It is expected the parts will wind up within 100 yards of the capsule.
“If we wind up encroaching on the agricultural areas just off the playa, it just won’t be a good landing day for Willcox,” he said.
The playa was used as a military bombing range, which presented some concerns initially, but a radar analysis of the area searched for unexploded ordnance and was deemed to be safe.
“Willcox has been wonderful. Cochise County has gone out of their way to provide services,” he said. “If we had an emergency, we could go to the Willcox site knowing Fort Huachuca and the county emergency services have been trained to secure the area until Boeing arrives.”
Judd said she has heard from a few property owners and asked for a site where people could go to allay their fears.
Gaspers, who lives in Tucson, told her he would be willing to come and speak with any interested people about the landing site.
English said, “We look forward to at some point in time seeing a landing there. Space exploration is going to explode as more people want to fly somewhere in a rocket. “