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Boeing makes a big splash testing new space capsule

Boeing is spending millions of dollars to design the next spacecraft to shuttle astronauts to the International Space Station. So how is the company treating the capsule it has designed that could be the future of manned space flight? By trying to break it in the Nevada desert.

Boeing has spent the last few days dunking its eight-person space capsule into a giant tank of water to test the airbag system that will deploy when the capsule returns from low Earth orbit.

The capsule is designed to touch down on land, but the company needs to test for a water landing should it need an alternate plan.

“These drop tests are really exciting when you drop something as a big as a simulated space craft that weighs 7-and-a-half tons and you’re dropping it at 20, 30 miles an hour from 20 feet up in the air,” says Boeing testing director John McKinney. “It’s pretty exciting stuff.”

McKinney says they need to bounce this capsule off the water and on the ground in the next month to find out if all their calculations on the design will work.

“Instead of getting a real hard landing that would probably break the space craft and injure the astronauts, we control that landing, get down to about 10 G’s or so, to limit the risk of injuries to the crew and to keep the capsule from being damaged.”

McKinney says the impact is designed to be about 10 G’s, but that’s still a pretty rough landing.

“So we’ll pour over all of the test data and make sure that we’re not exceeding the limits of our space craft or the limits of what the human tolerance level is and these tests will confirm the design of our system.”

Boeing is one of three companies fighting for the NASA contract to build the next generation of manned space vehicles. The company plans to put this capsule into orbit in 2016 and put astronauts into space in 2017, if everything works out and NASA likes what it sees.

“If we’re lucky enough to win the next phase of this and launch this thing into outer space, that will be kind of the kingpin of the whole thing,” says McKinney.

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