CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida — For decades, Utah workers played a major role in building rockets that lifted more than 800 space shuttle astronauts into orbit. But when it comes to landings, Utah has always been on the sidelines as various spacecraft burned through the atmosphere and headed for splashdowns in the Pacific Ocean or touchdowns in Florida and California.
That’s about to change.
Some people in Utah may have a front-row seat for astronaut landings — perhaps as soon as the end of this year or perhaps sometime next year.
“I think it’s very likely,” said Louis Atchison, chief of launch and recovery for the Boeing company’s new Starliner space capsule.
Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground is one of five potential target zones for the new spaceship. The vast Army base in the western desert could host the first astronaut landing in Utah history and many more after that.
“We’re looking about between 35 and 45 percent chance that we’d end up at Dugway,” Atchison said, explaining there are similar odds of a Utah landing each time the Starliner flies. Boeing expects Starliner missions once or twice annually for many years to come, assuming upcoming test missions are successful.
“We are very confident that we will fly this year,” said LeRoy Cain, Boeing’s director for mission integration and operations, one of several officials who showed off the company’s Starliner factory at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
Visually, Boeing appears to be going “back to the future.” The new Starliner space capsules look much like the old Apollo capsules of the 1960s and early ’70s. But the three capsules nearing completion are souped-up with totally modern technology.
“It’s essentially built,” Cain said. “We’re in the final stages of being ready to go fly.”
Starliner capsules will blast into orbit from a newly built launch tower at Cape Canaveral’s historic Launchpad 41.
“The Voyager probes left from this pad,” said Dane Drefke, “and went all the way out of the solar system.”
Drefke manages the launchpad for a multicompany team called the United Launch Alliance. Stepping off an elevator 175 above the launchpad, Drefke said: “So here we are on Level 12, the crew access tower. This is where everything will take place on launch day.”
Drefke walked into the so-called “White Room” on Level 12, where astronauts will enter the Starliner capsule after it’s positioned atop a massive Atlas 5 rocket.
“This is it,” Drefke said. “This is the last thing they’ll see before they climb into the Starliner and fly away into low-earth orbit.”
When it roars off the pad, the Atlas 5 will burn off over a million pounds of fuel in a few minutes, lifting the Starliner and its crew of astronauts to the International Space Station.
The U.S. hasn’t launched a crew into space since the last space shuttle flew in 2011. For the last eight years, whenever U.S. astronauts needed to go into orbit, the government has paid Russia to launch them in Kazakhstan.
“And that’s very expensive,” Cain said. “We don’t like the fact that we have to rely on another nation to provide transportation for our U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station.”
“That’s a critical capability that the United States needs to reclaim,” Drefke said, “and we are thrilled that it’s going to happen from right here at this launchpad.”
At a nearby launchpad, SpaceX is working on an alternative system for getting astronauts into orbit. NASA has contracted with both SpaceX and Boeing to build two entirely different crew-carrying spaceships. It’s part of an effort to “commercialize” the space program by paying private companies to create spacecraft instead of the government.
Officials of both companies hope to launch test missions — and astronauts — soon. Boeing’s first test-launch without a crew is scheduled for mid-August and the company hopes to launch astronauts by the end of the year.
“Our plan has never been to be first,” Cain said. “Our plan has been to be the safest and (most) reliable.”
The first Starliner test crew has already been chosen. After the Atlas 5 blasts the capsule into orbit, Chris Ferguson, Mike Fincke and Nicole Mann are expected to rendezvous with the International Space Station and climb aboard.
“And so we’re going to provide transportation,” Cain said, “a service to NASA.”
Utah landing site
At last word, NASA had not decided yet how long that first test-crew will remain on the space station. It could be short term or as long as six months.
When it’s time to come home, Starliner will make a fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, employing a heat-shield to protect the capsule much like the tiles that protected the belly of the space shuttle. But instead of landing like an airplane with wings, as the shuttle did, or splashing into the ocean as Apollo did, Starliner will unfurl enormous parachutes. An airbag cushion will soften the homecoming touchdown. And it might very well happen in Utah.
“Dugway is by far the best area to come to,” said Duane Shields, Army program manager at Dugway Proving Ground.
Other potential landing sites for each mission are at military bases in California, Arizona and New Mexico. Dugway has one big advantage: It’s very “big-ness.” The proposed landing site is in the middle of a huge, flat, government-controlled landscape with fences that would keep outsiders at least 20 miles away. The skies above are already designated as controlled airspace.
Dugway is by far the best area to come to.
“Dugway’s really big,” said base Commander Col. Brant Hoskins, “essentially the size of Rhode island.”
“The first crewed launch we hope is coming to Dugway,” Shields said. “But that’s dependent on a whole lot of different variables; the rotation of the Earth, when they’re going to detach from the space (station), and weather, primarily.”
In the last few days of every mission, Boeing and NASA will make a final decision on which landing site to use. That choice will be partly based on the timing and trajectory of the re-entry, but it will also hinge on such fast-changing factors as mud or strong winds in the target zones.
“The primary considerations are, first, what are the ground conditions going to be like?” Atchison said. “Second, what are our weather conditions going to be looking like.”
Can people watch?
Boeing officials hope Starliner will do at least one or two launches annually for many years to come, which could imply multiple landings in Utah.
“Absolutely,” Cain said. “Yes.”
And many Dugway employees are crossing their fingers.
“It’s a great thing for Dugway,” Shields said. “It’s a great thing for the state of Utah.”
But even if landings in Utah become more-or-less routine, that does not mean they will ever become a spectator event.
“No, not people on the ground,” Shields said. “They could come out, but they won’t get very close. They won’t be able to see anything.”
With hundreds of miles of fences and barbed wire, it’s pretty clear that attempted spectators are not welcome. Would visitors be stopped?
“Certainly,” Hoskins replied. “Yeah.”
“You’d have to have a pretty good set of binoculars, or a pretty good telescope, to be able to catch us coming in,” Atchison said. “There’s always the possibility of hearing the sonic boom when we come in.”
So, Utah may once again be the “Crossroads of the West,” this time for space travelers. But most Utah residents will never see it happen. With luck, they may only hear the distant thunder.