The landing was the latest step in a critical test for Boeing and NASA, which required the aerospace company to demonstrate that it could safely fly the vehicle to the station and return autonomously before allowing it to fly astronauts.
The return flight went smoothly, NASA and Boeing said, after being released from the space station, then launching its propellers into orbit and entering the atmosphere. As it fell back to Earth, its thermal shield withstood temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Just a beautiful landing in White Sands this afternoon,” Lauren Seabrook, a Boeing spokeswoman, said in a live broadcast.
He added that the spacecraft landed about three-tenths of a mile southeast of the landing site, “which is basically a bull’s eye,” he said.
It is not clear, however, when the first crew flight will take place.
On the way to the station, two of its main launchers were cut off after the sensors detected problems. The spare vehicles entered without delay, putting the spacecraft on the right path to the station, but as soon as it got close to the station, two other, smaller propellers, used to position the spacecraft for mooring, also had problems, Boeing said. In addition, the spacecraft’s thermal control system, used to keep the spacecraft at the right temperature, also failed.
Despite these challenges, NASA and Boeing hailed the mission as a “historic” pioneer that would give the space agency an alternative to SpaceX for transporting cargo and astronauts to the station. Mark Napi, vice president of Boeing overseeing the Starliner program, said that despite the problems, the “spacecraft is in excellent condition” and that it was “performing properly”.
Steve Stich, who heads NASA’s commercial crew program, said last week that the problems were overcome without much effort, but that “failures” should be studied.
“We have a lot of layoffs, so they really did not affect the operation of the appointment or the rest of the flight at all,” he said after docking. “I know that after the flight, we will go and study the failures there and see what happened.”
This research is made more difficult by the fact that the ground engineers will not be able to examine the two main propellers that were cut, as they are in the spacecraft service unit, which was launched on the return.
However, NASA and Boeing celebrated the flight as a success. During a post-flight briefing Wednesday afternoon, Stich said: “The test flight was extremely successful. We achieved all the goals of the mission “. He added that “the systems performed very well in the vehicle and, you know, once we process all the data, we will be ready to throw the crew in the vehicle.”
While there were many issues along the way, he said there were no “presenters”. Despite the problems with the propellers, he said, “I see no reason why we could not proceed with a crew flight test.”
Nappi added that “we are extremely pleased with the outcome of this mission.”
Boeing and NASA have said they would like to be able to carry out a mission with astronauts by the end of the year, but they must first make sure they understand all the issues that have arisen as well as study the data they have from the capsule now that it is back to the ground.
The program has already been delayed for years after a series of previous problems. Boeing first attempted the unmanned test flight in December 2019. But it had to stop the test after a major software problem and a communication failure caused the spacecraft to burn too much fuel and not enter orbit that would take it to space station. It took the company 20 months to try again, but that flight failed to even get off the ground last August when engineers discovered that 13 valves in the service unit were stuck in the closed position.