WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (August 5, 2022) On Wednesday, May 25, 2022, at 6:49 p.m. Eastern Time, the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft successfully landed within three-tenths of a mile of its target landing site at White Sands Space Harbor (WSSH). This parachute-assisted landing of the capsule marked the end of the historical Orbital Flight Test-2 and provided groundbreaking data to strengthen NASA's Commercial Crew Program, certifying the Starliner for crewed landings in the future.
At the same location 40 years ago, WSMR was welcoming its first ever spacecraft landing. The Space Transportation System (STS)-3 Columbia landed on the Northrup Strip to conclude NASA's third space shuttle mission which was crewed by NASA astronauts, Jack Lousma and Gordon Fullerton. At the last minute, Columbia had to divert from its intended landing at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California to WSMR due to bad weather compromising the landing site. With only five days' notice, over one thousand WSMR employees had collected data from the Alamo and Atom Peak's telemetry systems, and Tularosa Peak's microwave link. With a fast turnaround time, they sent this data to the Spaceflight Tracking and Data Network in preparation for Columbia's arrival. Two months after the historic landing, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation renaming the Northrop Strip area as White Sands Space Harbor.
Given that WSMR is the birthplace of America's missile and space activity, this was not the testing facility's first time entertaining ideas of working with spacecraft. WSMR staff crafted a report 61 years ago, called the "Proposal For NASA-DOD Launch Site On National Lunar Program" in response to a request from NASA in June of 1961, to explore the possibility of launching Project Apollo from the range. WSMR did not win the proposal due to logistical issues of transporting boosters overland to southern New Mexico in preparation for the launch. There were also concerns over issues that would come with dropping those boosters over Texas and Louisiana during its east-bound journey from WSMR. However, it did set the precedence for WSMR's capacity to host astronaut training for spacecraft landings in the future. It also jumpstarted the establishment of a laboratory on post to test materials used inside capsules and shuttles. These efforts created an atmosphere that WSMR had the capacity to do great things with spacecraft. With encouragement and excitement, local politicians and business leaders fully supported WSMR's efforts to work with spacecraft in the future.
As a great step towards this future, in 1966 NASA tested the Planetary Entry Parachute Program (PEPP) aeroshell on WSMR which was created to test parachutes for the Voyager Mars landing program. The PEPP was carried under a high-altitude balloon from Roswell, New Mexico. Once it entered WSMR's airspace, it was able to ascend to the upper levels of the atmosphere where the parachutes could be tested in incredibly thin air.
Just a few years later, the Northrup Corporation built the Northrop Strip on WSMR for drone launches and landings, and was later turned over to NASA for shuttle trainings and landings. During that time, 85 percent of NASA's shuttle pilot landing trainings were done on the strip, testing against environmental elements such as wind angles, wind speeds and nighttime landings.
After the successful CST-100 Starliner landing on WSMR, NASA looks to take a great leap forward by adding human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station. WSSH will continue to provide a safe landing area and testing ground for their brave astronauts and the countless hardworking people who make these missions possible.
Graphic designed by Vanessa Flores, WSMR Public Affairs Specialist.