WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (May 20, 2022) – NASA and Boeing's Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2) successfully launched on May 19, and now White Sands Missile Range is preparing for the landing of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft. The spacecraft launched from Space Launch Complex 41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the anticipated landing is on May 25 at White Sands Missile Range.
Starliner’s mission under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will be an uncrewed test flight to the International Space Station, although it is a transportation system for astronauts. It is the next step in NASA and Boeing’s process as they prepare for a future crewed flight test followed by regular long-duration missions to the station.
This is the second landing of the Starliner spacecraft on the Army installation, the first landing was in December 2019. In November of 2019, the Boeing Pad Abort Test also landed successfully at White Sands Missile Range.
Karla V. James works for the Materiel Test Directorate as the Air and Space Branch Test Officer at White Sands Missile Range. This is James' third year in the position, she works on the Starliner and other space-related projects at the installation. She coordinates with NASA, Spaceport, Virgin Galactic, and other space entities, especially when they need to utilize WSMR airspace.
The Starliner landing mission is one project that James and her team work on throughout the year, working closely with the contractor, NASA, other external organizations involved, and all the WSMR personnel who support the mission.
“We ensure that there is a private industry contract with Boeing in place to guarantee that they have the range elements that they need for their flight tests and missions,” said James. “We deal with funding, scheduling, and all their required documentation. For example, we provide them a Ground Safety Standard Operating Procedure to review and agree upon. That specific SOP has different procedures to ensure we operate under safe measures.”
Throughout the WSMR installation, several vital players provide their expertise and skills in making the Landing and Recovery Mission successful and safe for the surrounding communities.
“We work with several offices and people here at WSMR. The Flight Safety Office obtains the trajectory profiles of where the capsule is coming in from and sends out an evacuation notice which is our standard protocol for safety purposes,” said James.
James noted that they determine the capsule's trajectory on the day of the anticipated landing and that weather is a significant factor. The WSMR Meteorology Branch is heavily involved in providing weather data utilizing weather balloon releases. If the weather or any other factor causes the module to shift from the agreed-upon landing sites between WSMR and Boeing, the crew module will need to land at an alternate site or delay the spacecraft’s return.
“We also help Boeing move all their equipment from LC-32 to where they are landing, which could be White Sands Space Harbor or Range Road 26,” said James.
Since there are two potential landing sites on the installation, the entire WSMR team, Boeing, NASA, and all other personnel need to be prepared for the landing and recovery to happen at either location. They also have alternate landing plans that are executable within a few hours if the flight tests or missions need to return earlier than originally planned.
Additional offices like the White Sands Test Center Environmental Office are also involved in designating the landing area. Initially, seven spots were in the running to be the landing site. However, it was narrowed down to two landing sites for this mission. The Environmental Assessment ensures that both the landing spots and vicinities are free of certain cultural and biological resources.
“If there is anything sensitive in a location, we must mitigate the activity so that way we do not create damage of any kind to the land,” said James Thomas, Environmental Engineer for the White Sands Test Center. “We must also demonstrate that there will be no significant lasting impact on the land, while ensuring the final proposed action from our client fits within the grand scheme."
James also has a team of Test Conductors who are vital to the mission's planning and provide manpower on the day of landing. Since White Sands Missile Range has strict security guidelines, Test Conductors escort external personnel around the installation and are also eyes and ears for the Test Officers. The Test Conductors and key players have Mission Dress Rehearsals ahead of the landing. The Test Conductors take notes during the rehearsals and make sure all the moving elements work. If something does not go as planned, the Test Officers and Test Conductors come together to adjust the plan before the actual mission.
Socorro Martinez is an Electronic Engineer for the White Sands Test Center and is one of the Test Officers for this mission. One of her tasks is to assist the Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery (SCIFLI) team that supports the live streaming and coverage for NASA TV. Martinez works with them to ensure the SCIFLI team has the correct angles for the landing, so everything they capture is suitable.
"I lead the team who works the Counter Drones here at WSMR," said Martinez. "For this mission, we are using one of our Counter Drones to video capture an aerial view and all the work that goes into the recovery. One example is that this footage will show all the different vehicles driving towards the capsule after it lands, allowing people to see the large effort that goes into the recovery of the capsule.”
When Martinez does Counter Drone work, she collaborates closely with Evan Gonzalez, Counter Unmanned Aircraft System Lead Pilot and SME for the Test Technology Directorate. Since this mission added an unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) element into the mix, she also works closely with him on this Starliner project.
"I make sure that everything we are planning for the UAV portion of filming is feasible. Leading up to the mission, my job is to let people know what is possible, and if it is not possible, I come up with an alternate plan that will have a similar result," said Gonzalez. "The day of the mission, I will be piloting the drone. I am the lead pilot of the Counter UAS Team, so most of the time, the drones I fly are targets that are shot down."
Gonzalez said it is nice to pilot something that is not going down, and this mission has more of a creative aspect than other White Sands Missile Range missions. However, the planning and piloting skills that he uses daily are very similar to his work on the Starliner capsule.
One aspect of the U.S. Army White Sands Missile Range Garrison Fire Department's involvement is providing and operating the decontamination station. The Fire Department and others have received training on their part in the landing and recovery process. In the future, they will also receive training on what to do when the astronauts are present within the capsule.
"When the capsule lands, Boeing has a requirement to ensure it is safe to approach the capsule and open the hatch,” said James. “They send out Boeing personnel in protective suits with hydrazine monitors and, depending on the wind, determine where to set up the staging area. Up-wind or down-wind plays a key part in the location.”
Once the Boeing team determines that there are no hazardous chemicals like hydrazine, the Fire Department helps them decontaminate in a makeshift decontamination room. Then the Boeing staff is allowed to remove their suits, and all the other team members supporting may approach the capsule and execute their roles as the capsule recovery begins.
The projected Boeing CST-100 Starliner Landing and Recovery Mission at White Sands Missile Range will live-stream on NASA TV at https://www.nasa.gov/. White Sands Missile Range will also be sharing the live-stream on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WSMissileRange/.