Dress Rehearsal of Cosmic Proportions

By Geoff Oldfather

Recovery crews rehearse the Starliner capsule retrieval at Willcox Playa with an inflatable replica of the spacecraft.

Willcox Playa may be the site of the next landing and recovery of a unique space capsule.

Vehicles and recovery teams gathered on the northwest side of the Willcox Playa recently for a dress rehearsal of cosmic proportions. The event was in preparation for the upcoming landing of Boeing’s crew space transportation spacecraft, CST-100 Starliner.

Willcox Playa was first announced as a possible landing site during a public presentation at the Willcox Community Center in November 2019.

“This is a dress rehearsal for landing the Starliner spacecraft on the playa here south of Willcox; it’s one of four landing sites that could be selected, with the selection based on the trajectory of the (ISS International) space station and predicted weather and terrain conditions at the landing sites,” says Mike Fawcett, senior engineer for Special Aerospace Services on the Boeing Starliner project.

During the training exercise, recovery crews cover the inflatable replica of the Starliner Spacecraft to protect the crew and capsule.

The spacecraft is designed to take up to seven passengers or a mix of passengers and cargo to low-Earth orbit, or up to four NASA-sponsored crew members and scientific research projects to the International Space Station, according to Boeing.

The spacecraft could land in Willcox Playa in May or June, depending on the launch date.

“If we pick Willcox, we’ll come out here about one week ahead of time, set up our equipment, do some training runs and be ready here for when Starliner lands,” Mike says.

The teams go through an intricate and carefully staged process as they prepare to approach the Starliner capsule after landing. Multiple recovery crews rehearsed the process on the playa during training exercises March 1 and 2, with safety as the priority.

As the Starliner is descending, “we have a 4-kilometer radius landing circle that we have to stay out of, so we set up right outside that,” Mike says.

Once the Boeing team gets confirmation the spacecraft is on the ground, a convoy is sent 500 feet upwind from the spacecraft.

The crew rolls up the capsule parachute with Apache Generating Station in the background.

Mike says hydrazine—a toxic flammable liquid with an ammonia-type odor—is used as a propellent. A team checks to make sure there are no leaks before moving closer.

“We send in the teams with protective gear on to do what we call a hydrazine sniff check,” Mike explains. “Once they give the all-clear, the people who aren’t in gear can proceed on into the spacecraft.”

The second step for Mike and his team is grounding the spacecraft to eliminate the electrostatic discharge built up during reentry. Then the team places jacks under the craft to make it stable.

“At that point, we bring in a large cooling system that we hook up to cool it,” he says. “The reason for that is it’s powered down pretty quickly after landing, so we have to make sure we keep (the crew) cool, and at that point, we can back the trailer up to the hatch and open the hatch and pull the crew out.”

The team goes through various scenarios and repeated training to make sure everyone knows how to perform their roles.

“Because all of the personnel come from all around the country, we don’t get together very often so when we do, we always try to maximize the training at the different sites,” Mike says.

The Willcox Playa has a lot to offer as a landing site due to its wide-open spaces. Fort Huachuca offers additional training space and local personnel support for the landing.

“It’s been a great partnership with Fort Huachuca and Willcox Emergency Services to establish a zone that enables the safety and security of astronauts, Starliner teammates and residents,” Mike says.

Arizona G&T Cooperatives and the Apache Generating Station team are involved because the access road that starts near the plant will accommodate the heavy vehicles required to retrieve the Starliner spacecraft once the crew is safely recovered.

During a visit last year, Mike said the spacecraft will be loaded onto an 18-foot-wide trailer. The spacecraft weighs 15,000 to 16,000 pounds and the shipping container it will be placed in weighs 13,000 pounds.

“Everyone at the (Apache) power plant has been awesome,” Mike says. “Everything we’ve asked them to help us with they’ve done. It went really well from everything I saw and heard from the crew that was out there. We really appreciate working with Arizona G&T Cooperatives. They’re just a great bunch to work with.”

Even if the trajectory of the International Space Station is not in line with a landing at the Willcox Playa in May, the site will continue as an option for future spacecraft landings.

For more information about the CST-100 Starliner, visit Boeing's Starliner webpage.