Boeing Starliner returns to Earth to complete crucial test mission

After spending less than a week on the space station, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, returned to Earth this afternoon, landing intact with the help of parachutes and airbags in the New Mexico desert. The successful touchdown brings an end to a crucial test flight for the Starliner, a flight that demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to launch into space, moor at the station and then return home safely.

In the shape of a drop, the Boeing Starliner capsule was built in collaboration with NASA to launch the organization’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station, or ISS. The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which prompted private companies to create space taxis to transport humans to Earth’s low orbit. But before NASA allowed its crew to board the spacecraft, the space agency wanted the Starliner to prove that it could make all the moves of an ISS voyage – without people on board.

With today’s landing, this unmanned test flight – called OFT-2 – has come to an end, with the Starliner performing every major step it was intended to take. The capsule was successfully launched into orbit on May 19, leading into space on an Atlas V rocket. It approached and moored at the ISS on May 20. and disconnected from the space station this afternoon before heading home. However, it was not a completely smooth flight. Throughout the mission, the Starliner encountered various problems with its various propellers, the tiny engines used to maneuver and propel the vehicle into space. None of these problems proved fatal to the flight, however, and the Starliner was able to complete the OFT-2 as scheduled.

It was also a bumpy road to this launch. The name of this test flight, OFT-2, actually means Orbital Flight Test-2. This is due to the fact that it is the same test flight that Boeing attempted to make in 2019. In December of the same year, Boeing launched the unmanned Starliner, sending it into space with another Atlas V rocket. But a software bug in Starliner made the capsule mistakenly launch its launchers after it detached from the rocket and eventually the spacecraft went into the wrong orbit. The problem prevented the Starliner from reaching the space station, and Boeing was unable to demonstrate the spacecraft’s ability to dock with the ISS. Boeing had to bring the spacecraft home early and managed to land the capsule at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico – at the same location as the Starliner landed today.

Boeing tried to launch the Starliner again last summer, but just hours before takeoff, the company stopped the countdown after finding that more than a dozen propulsion valves were stuck and not opening properly. It took Boeing so far to fix the problems and the company says it is possible to redesign the valves in the future. But now, two and a half years after the initial failed flight, the Starliner has finally shown that it can launch and dock autonomously on the ISS – a key feature it will have to perform over and over again when people are on board.

Landing is also a critical task for the Starliner in order to bring passengers home safely. To demonstrate these capabilities for this flight, the capsule was disconnected from the ISS at 2:36 p.m. ET this afternoon, flying slowly around the station and then distanced itself from the laboratory in orbit. At 6:05 p.m. ET, the Starliner used its on-board propellers to slow itself and get out of orbit, bringing it into orbit with the Earth’s surface. Shortly afterwards, the vehicle sank into the planet’s atmosphere, with temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The Starliner then used a series of parachutes to slow its fall before landing on White Sands over airbags to help absorb the contact. It marked the second successful landing for the Starliner, as Boeing already presented the vehicle landing during its first failed test flight in 2019.

“This touchdown is coming at 5:49 p.m. “Central time, almost six days after the mission,” said NASA Brandi Dean, a NASA communications officer, during the live landing. “Just a nice touchdown at White Sands tonight.”

There was some concern about this landing, however, as the Starliner ran into multiple problems with its launchers throughout the flight. When the capsule was launched into space last week, two of the 12 propellers used by Starliner to enter the right orbit failed. Boeing said the drop in cabin pressure caused the propulsion system to shut down prematurely. Eventually, the Starliner’s flight control system was able to redirect to a spare launcher in time and the capsule went into orbit as planned. However, these same propellants were needed to get the Starliner out of orbit, but they seemed to work as planned despite the two failed propellants.

There were other errors during the flight. Some different smaller propellers used to maneuver the Starliner while connecting also failed due to low chamber pressure. However, it did not prevent the capsule from attaching to the ISS. “We have a lot of layoffs that really did not affect the date of the appointment,” said Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program director, during a post-dock press conference. On top of that, the Boeing team noticed that some of the Starliner’s thermal systems used to cool the spacecraft showed extra low temperatures, and the team of engineers had to handle this during the mooring.

The Starliner still achieved many of its objectives while anchored in the ISS. The ISS astronauts opened the Starliner hatch this weekend, got into the vehicle and retrieved the cargo that had been transported to the station. The capsule has carried about 600 kilograms of cargo back to Earth, as well as Rosie the Rocketeer, a mannequin that drove inside the Starliner to simulate what it would be like when people boarded a ship.

Now, with Starliner back on Earth, there is still a lot of work to be done. In the coming months, NASA and Boeing will study the failures that occurred on this flight and determine if the Starliner is ready to transport humans into space during a test flight called the CFT, for the Crewed Flight Test, which could to occur by the end of the year. This will be a huge milestone for Boeing, which lags far behind NASA’s other commercial crew provider, SpaceX. SpaceX has already made five crew flights to the station for NASA with the Crew Dragon capsule, which carried its first passengers in 2020.

But if the Starliner manages to fly humans, NASA will finally have what it has always wanted: two different American companies capable of orbiting service astronauts.

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