Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returns to Earth, wrapping up critical test mission

After spending just under a week on the space station, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, returned to Earth this afternoon and landed intact using parachutes and airbags in the New Mexico desert. The successful landing puts an end to a crucial test flight for Starliner, one that demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to launch into space, dock at the station, and then return home safely.

Boeing’s Starliner capsule, shaped like a gumdrop, was built in conjunction with NASA to launch the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station, or ISS. The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which challenged private companies to create space taxis to take people to low-Earth orbit. But before NASA let its staff ride the vehicle, the space agency wanted Starliner to demonstrate it could go through all the motions of a trip to the ISS — without people on board.

With today’s landing, that unmanned test flight – dubbed OFT-2 – has come to an end, with Starliner performing every major step it was set to accomplish. The capsule was successfully launched into orbit on May 19 and rode into space atop an Atlas V rocket; it approached and docked at the ISS on May 20; and he disconnected from the space station this afternoon before going home. However, it was not quite a smooth flight. During the mission, Starliner encountered a number of problems with its various thrusters, small engines used to maneuver and propel the vehicle through space. None of those problems proved fatal to the flight, however, and Starliner was able to complete OFT-2 as planned.

It was also a bumpy road to get to this launch. The name of this test flight, OFT-2, actually stands for Orbital Flight Test-2. That’s because it’s a repeat of the same test flight Boeing attempted to perform in 2019. In December of that year, Boeing launched Starliner with no crew on board and sent it into space on another Atlas V rocket. But a software glitch on Starliner caused the capsule to misfire its thrusters after it separated from the rocket, and eventually the spacecraft ended up in the wrong orbit. The problem prevented Starliner from reaching the space station and Boeing was unable to demonstrate that the spacecraft could dock at the ISS. Boeing had to get the spacecraft home early and was able to land the capsule in New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range — the same location Starliner landed today.

Boeing tried again to attempt to launch Starliner last summer, but just hours before takeoff, the company halted the countdown after discovering that more than a dozen propellant valves were stuck and not opening properly. Boeing has needed to fix the issues so far, and the company says it’s possible the valves could be redesigned in the future. But now, two and a half years after its original failed flight, Starliner has finally shown it can launch and dock autonomously with the ISS — an important function it will have to perform time and again when people are on board.

Landing is also a crucial task for Starliner to get passengers home safely. To demonstrate those capabilities for this flight, the capsule disengaged from the ISS at 2:36 PM this afternoon, flew slowly around the station, then moved away from the orbiting lab. At 6:05 PM ET, Starliner used the onboard thrusters to slow itself down and move it out of orbit, bringing it on course with the Earth’s surface. Shortly after, the vehicle plunged through the planet’s atmosphere, experiencing temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Starliner then used a series of parachutes to slow its fall before landing in White Sands atop airbags to help cushion the landing. It was the second successful landing for Starliner, as Boeing already showed the landing of the vehicle during its first failed test flight in 2019.

“That landing is coming at 5:49 p.m. Central Time, almost exactly six days after the mission,” NASA’s Brandi Dean, a NASA communications officer, said during a livestream of the landing. “Just a beautiful landing in White Sands tonight.”

There was some concern about this landing, however, as Starliner had multiple problems with its thrusters during the flight. When the capsule launched into space last week, two of the 12 thrusters Starliner uses to prop itself into Earth orbit failed. Boeing said the pressure in the chamber caused the thrusters to fire prematurely. Finally, Starliner’s flight control system was rerouted to a backup thruster in time, and the capsule entered orbit as planned. However, those same thrusters were needed to take Starliner out of orbit, but they seemed to work as planned despite the two failed thrusters.

There were also other bugs during the flight. A couple of several smaller thrusters, used to maneuver Starliner while docking, also failed due to low chamber pressure. However, it did not prevent the capsule from attaching itself to the ISS. “We have a lot of redundancy that didn’t affect rendezvous operations at all,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, at a press conference after docking. In addition, the Boeing team noted that some Starliner thermal systems used to cool the spacecraft exhibited extra cold temperatures, and the engineering team had to deal with that during docking.

Starliner still achieved many of its goals while docked with the ISS. Astronauts aboard the ISS opened the hatch of Starliner this weekend, entered the vehicle and picked up the cargo that had been brought to the station. The capsule has brought about 600 pounds of cargo back to Earth, as well as Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin who rode in Starliner to simulate what it will be like when people ride aboard.

With Starliner back on Earth, there’s still plenty of work to do. In the coming months, NASA and Boeing will study the failures that occurred on this flight and determine whether Starliner is ready to transport humans to space during a test flight called CFT, for Crewed Flight Test, which could be completed by the end of the year. take place. That will be a huge milestone for Boeing, which has fallen far behind NASA’s other Commercial Crew provider, SpaceX. SpaceX has already flown five manned flights to the station for NASA on its Crew Dragon capsule, which was carrying its first passengers in 2020.

But if Starliner gets permission to fly humans, NASA will finally have what it’s always wanted: two different American companies capable of putting astronauts from the agency into orbit.


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