My wife and I were enjoying a glass of wine on the back patio on Wednesday afternoon last week when we were startled by two thundering booms that we could feel.
I was pretty sure it was a sonic boom, but we haven’t heard many of those around here in years.
Shortly afterwards, something popped up on Twitter that explained it all. It was the re-entry of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft returning from the International Space Station to land at White Sands Missile Range just northeast of us over the Organ Mountains.
The spacecraft was unmanned and returning to earth as part of a test by NASA. The sonic booms were triggered as it broke the sound barrier upon re-entering the earth’s atmosphere.
It had been on a six-day mission to the International Space Station as a test for future manned missions. NASA and Boeing’s Orbital Flight Test-2 launched successfully May 19 from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It landed in New Mexico at 4:49 p.m. MDT last Wednesday, four hours after leaving the orbiting lab. Flight engineers said it made a “virtual bull’s eye” landing, less than three-tenths of a mile from the landing target in the Tularosa Basin.
NASA sources said the re-entry was probably visible over the Gulf of California and northern Mexico. Our skies at the time were clogged with smoke from the Black Fire scorching the Black Range on the eastern edge of the Gila, so we probably could not have seen anything.
What was interesting to my wife and me was that neither of us had seen any advance notification or publicity about the landing. NASA says it hopes to be using the spacecraft in the future to shuttle astronauts back and forth from the International Space Station. It makes us wonder what kinds of other things go on out at White Sands that we never know about. Our good friend and neighbor Frank, who at one time temporarily became be the top non-military officer to command the base, would probably have the right to kill us if he divulged any of that information. Knowing Frank, I doubt he’d do that.
What I would like to know is whether NASA plans to use WSMR for the regular landing site for future manned Starliner missions. I think the Achilles heel for parachute landings in this part of the world is the strong winds we have each spring.
An interesting side story was that the returning spacecraft had a full-sized human dummy, named Rosie after Rosie the Riveter, on board during the re-entry. It survived the test and I’ll bet it didn’t flinch as much as we did when the capsule broke through the sound barrier. And I’m sure she didn’t need a glass of wine to calm her nerves.