The Boeing crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, completing a repeat test flight before NASA astronauts boarded.
It was a quick trip back: The Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting laboratory, with airbags attached to mitigate the landing. Only one mannequin was buttoned.
Aside from the propeller failures and cooling system obstacles, the Starliner seemed to be completing its high-stakes shakedown cruise, 2 1/2 years after its first failed attempt. Flight controllers in Houston applauded and cheered.
“It’s great to have this incredible test flight behind us,” said Steve Stich, director of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. He described the demo as “extremely successful”, with all the goals achieved.
Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi added: “On a scale of one to 10, I think I would give it 15.”
Based on these early results, NASA astronauts will take a trip to the space station, perhaps by the end of the year. The space agency has long wanted two competing US astronaut transport companies for extra insurance, as it has drastically reduced its dependence on Russia for space station rides.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts from 2020 and even tourists. Falling off the coast of Florida as its crew capsules, the Boeing Starliner returns to the vast and desolate White Sands Missile Area of the Army in New Mexico.
Boeing canceled its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software errors left the capsule in the wrong orbit and almost condemned it. The company corrected the defects and tried again last summer, but the corroded valves stopped the countdown. After more repairs, the Starliner finally took off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and moored at the space station on Friday.
The station’s astronauts tested the Starliner’s communications and computer systems during its five days on the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of pounds (kilos) of groceries and other supplies that were thrown into the Boeing capsule and then filled with empty air tanks and other discarded tools.
A folded US flag sent by Boeing was left behind to be retrieved by the first Starliner crew.
“We are a little sad to see her leave,” said Bob Hines station astronaut as the capsule flew away.
Along with the ride was the test model of the Starliner – Rosie the Rocketeer, a take-off with the Rosie the Riveter of World War II.
Repairs and repairs cost Boeing nearly $ 600 million.