Willcox residents get ready for Boeing’s new space capsule

Willcox gets ready for a potential space landing

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Starting next month, Cochise County residents may be able to do a different kind of star gazing.

The Willcox Playa — located in Willcox, Arizona — has been chosen to be one of five locations where Boeing’s Starliner space capsule could land.

In 2014, NASA awarded Boeing $4.2 billion to build, test and fly the Boeing’s Commercial Crew Transportation System, called CST-100 Starliner. The contract includes six service missions as well as an unmanned and crewed flight test to the space station. SpaceX, headed by Elon Musk, was awarded $2.6 billion to develop it’s own space capsule called the Dragon.

The Starliner was designed to accommodate seven passengers or a mix of crew and cargo. The spacecraft has an innovative structure and is resuable up to 10 times, with a six month turnaround time. It will be the only American-built capsule certified to land on the ground, due to it’s parachute and airbag systems. It is equipped with four launch abort engines to provide a safe escape for astronauts from the launch pad through ascent to orbit. It will also fly and dock autonomously.

NASA's Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station are home to the Starliner's manufacturing and launch operations.

In addition to Willcox, other potential landing sites include two sites on White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico; Dugway Proving Grounds, Near Salt Lake City and the Edwards Air Force Base, Southern California.

The Starliner already went through its first test launch at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Here in southern Arizona, excitement is building as a meeting was held at the Willcox Community Center.

"It’s overwhelming, like, of all places in all of America — Willcox,” said George Wood.

Not only is he a Willcox resident, he’s also a business owner at LifeStyle RV Resort.

That means he has the perfect spot to view the potential capsule touch down.

"Anyone who wants to come watch and see it they could come right to my property and we could fill up fast.” Wood said.

He’s not the only one supporting the Starliner.

“Several of the people I’ve talked to around the area think it’s kind of exciting,” said Willcox local Felicia Harguess.

Harguess said Boeing’s choice to pick the Willcox Playa makes the most sense.

“The dry lake has a large expansive ground out there that’s basically just sand so it’s a perfect spot,” she said.

That expansive piece of land is exactly what drew Boeing Senior Systems Engineer Marty Linde to pick the area.

“We needed a 4 kilometer radius, circle or clear area that didn’t have trees, didn’t have boulders, didn’t have buildings,” Linde said.

Between the five locations, Linde says there’s a one-in-two chance the capsule lands in Willcox.

In order to land, it’s going to take cooperation through several state and local agencies. Boeing official said they will need assistance to prevent large groups of people from entering the area.

Boeing said the Cochise County officials will define what roads should be blocked.

For normal landings, Boeing will have a contract for MEDEVAC support and astronauts. In the case of an emergency landing, life support will be called in, and all personnel will be MEDEVACed to Banner-Univeristy Medical Center for evaluation.

Boeing will add Starliner landings to a contract with Clean Harbors for hazardous waste cleanup. Clean Harbors crew will be on site the day before, the day of, and the day after the landing. They will be responsible for decontamination of equipment affected by any possible spills.

Take fore example hydrazine, a colorless alkaline liquid used in some kinds of rocket fuels that is extremely toxic and possibly fatal.

People exposed to it can suffer burns in the eyes, nose, mouth, esophagus and respiratory tract.

Just that risk alone has some Willcox locals concerned about pollution. But Linde said it’s very unlikely there would be a leak.

“Once you touch down and power the vehicle down it actually isolates that fuel from the reaction control jets so you should never have a leak,” Linde said.

Emergency crews will still be prepared along with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office as well as local fire and police departments.

It’s going to take a village to complete the mission, but for those living in it, it’s an opportunity to launch into the future.

“I’m happy to be here and I’m happy to see the town grow,” Wood said.

The first unmanned test flight is scheduled for Dec. 17. The first crewed flight test is scheduled for early spring 2020.

Read more about the potential landing:

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