Boeing posted this video of airbag tests for their CST-100 capsule. The CST-100, for Crew Space Transportation 100, is a new crew capsule Boeing is developing for LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to the space station and other destinations. It is a commercial venture, like SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Sierra Nevada Corporations’s Dream Chaser space plane, and unlike the NASA program for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle capsule run by Lockheed Martin. The Orion is being developed primarily for deep space missions to asteroids and Mars, with the intention of using the commercial vehicles for LEO.
You might wonder what ‘other destinations’ there are in LEO. Well, if you listen to the video you’ll hear Bigelow Aerospace mentioned as having built the test rig. Bigelow is working with Boeing on the CST-100, because Bigelow is working on a commercial space station and they need a way to get there. Bigelow’s technology is based on the inflatable TransHab technology NASA developed – and cancelled.
Unlike the Orion and old Apollo capsules, the CST-100 is not meant to splash down in water, but rather to touch down on dry land, like the Russian Soyuz. All capsules descend under parachutes. At the last moment the Soyuz fires retrorockets mounted in the rigging to brake the descent to touch down relatively gently. The CST-100 is going a different route, instead deploying airbags from underneath the heat shield, to soften the impact. That is what we see being tested in the video.
The SpaceX Dragon is initially making water landings as an expedient, but the long term goal is to use thrusters to make a controlled vertical touch down on dry land. The idea is that the same thrusters can be used as the emergency escape system to push the capsule away from the booster during a launch mishap. (That’s what the tower sticking off the nose of an Apollo or Orion capsule is for. SpaceX plans to use ‘pusher’ rockets instead of a ‘puller’ tower.) The Dream Chaser, of course, will land on a runway.