Forget Pacific Ocean splashdowns. Think instead Utah desert dustdowns.
Yes, the barren landscape of Dugway Proving Ground — with its fenced, vast, empty, remote, secure and utterly flat terrain — makes it an ideal landing spot for future astronauts to return to Earth when spaceflights resume as soon as this year after an eight-year hiatus following the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle program.
Up to twice a year, these missions’ return voyages could end at Dugway, according to Duane Shields, a program manager at the 800,000-acre weapons-testing installation operated by the U.S. Army 85 miles west of Salt Lake City.
“The possibility for Dugway is very good,” Shields said this week. “The reason for that is just simply the type of terrain that we have. If you look across the West Desert, it’s mostly flat, got a lot of sand, dry lake bed, salty area that makes it very conducive to actually landing the craft.”
NASA and Boeing are finishing launch preparations for the unpiloted maiden voyage of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, a next-generation spacecraft designed to ferry astronauts into orbit and return them safely to Earth. Instead of plunging into the ocean, like the Apollo capsules, or landing on runways, liked the winged space shuttles, Starliner would parachute onto dry land with air bags cushioning the impact.
A test launch, scheduled for August, will put an unmanned capsule into orbit. A crewed mission is expected by year’s end, followed by many others to the International Space Station as a part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program.
Boeing has built two Starliner capsules, which are to perform alternate missions with six months between launches, according to Josh Barrett, a Boeing spokesman on the Starliner project. Each capsule — similar to the old Apollo, Gemini and Mercury craft but with vastly updated technology — can be reused for up to 10 missions.
NASA also has contracted with SpaceX on a competing system to get astronauts and equipment to and from orbit.
A landing at Dugway would be the first time a crewed craft returning from space has ever touched down in Utah — at least that anyone knows about.
“Everybody thinks that it’s a great thing for us to be involved in a program like this,” Shields said. “It’s a great thing for NASA and the Air Force to take us back into space. We’re just we’re happy to be able to support it.”
For landing Starliner, Boeing and NASA selected Dugway along with four other sites in Arizona and New Mexico, including the Army’s White Sands Missile Range. Where a particular mission lands would be decided during the week before touchdown, based partly on weather and ground conditions.
“All of those [sites] each [has] favorable conditions. However, we can all be affected by weather,” Shields said. “It’s not just the weather of the day or the weather of the week. It’s what was the weather like the 30 days previous, what is it going to be like a week after.”
Clear, calm weather during reentry and several days after is important for a safe landing and an easy capsule recovery, which can take up to three days. So the soil’s moisture content matters.
“What you don’t want to do is to stick this thing in the mud,” Shields said. “It is on air pillows. However, it would be fairly difficult to remove out of the mud, depending on how deep it goes, because it’s still quite heavy.”
An even more critical factor for selecting the landing location is the alignment of the space station’s orbit, Barrett noted, which varies slightly after each of its 90-minute circumnavigations of the globe 250 miles up. Boeing would select two sites under the station’s eastward orbit — the first being a primary target to land Starliner, the second a backup.
Once the capsule decouples from the space station, its crew is fully committed to landing, Barrett said. There is no turning back. The capsule’s life-support systems can sustain 120 hours of free flight. If the weather changes or some other unexpected condition arises that complicates reentry, the crew could survive another 80 rotations around the Earth while a landing site is nailed down.
“Ultimately," Barrett said, “the ocean is an option.”
Starliner’s landing equipment already has been testing in high-altitude drops from balloons above White Sands, he said.
For live flights, the reentry trajectory would begin over the Pacific, forming an arc over the western United States, where the capsule would decelerate from its orbital speed of 17,500 mph as it compresses masses of air in its path. The descent would be further slowed in a sequence of three parachute deployments. First two “drogue” chutes would be released to increase drag and stabilize the descent, Barrett said, and then a “pilot chute” pulls out the three main chutes, which slow the descent to what is experienced by a skyscraper’s elevator.
The size and weight of the crew capsule are proprietary details, but Barrett said the interior is comparable to that of a large passenger van. It is designed to carry seven astronauts, but NASA has contracted Boeing to carry four, with an option for a fifth. The extra space would be taken up by cargo. The aerospace firm is contracted with NASA for two test flights and six manned missions.
While Utahns and other Westerners may get to hear Starliner’s sonic boon, they should not expect to actually observe the craft descend — except maybe through a powerful telescope from a far distance. The public would not be allowed anywhere near any landing spots, including at Dugway — for both security and public safety reasons.
“As this thing is coming back to Earth out of orbit, there will be some debris that comes off it,” Shields said, “so we try to keep everybody clear from a debris field as much as possible.”
Personnel would be confined to mobile bunkers during Starliner’s descent.
NASA and Boeing have endeavored to reduce the program’s uncertainties, such as the size of the potential landing area. Early in Starliner’s development, according to Shields, that area was 20 kilometers across. It has since been narrowed to four kilometers.
“It is still a large area,” he said. “The debris field is almost double that, which is why we picked locations that we’ve picked."
It’s also why the West Desert ranks as a best desert — at least for the nation’s next giant leap into space.
Correction • May 30, 11:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that a Starliner landing in the West Desert would be the first time a crewed spacecraft has come down in Utah.