The Boeing crew taxi returned to Earth from the International Space Station on Wednesday, performing a rehearsal test flight before NASA astronauts boarded.
It was a quick comeback: The Starliner capsule parachuted into the New Mexico desert just four hours after leaving the orbiting lab, with airbags attached to cushion the landing. Only one mannequin was buckled.
Thruster failures and cooling system snags aside, Starliner appeared to land its high-stakes shakedown cruise, 2½ years after its failed first try. Flight controllers in Houston cheered and applauded the bullseye landing.
“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 goals achieved.
Mark Nappi, vice president of Boeing, added: “On a scale of 1 to 10, I think I would give it 15.”
Based on these early results, NASA astronauts will then attach themselves to a trip to the space station, possibly by the end of the year. The space agency has long wanted two competing U.S. companies carrying astronauts, for added insurance, as it has dramatically reduced its reliance on Russia for trips to and from the space station.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already the established leader, launching astronauts since 2020 and even tourists. Its crew capsules crash off the coast of Florida, Boeing’s Starliner returns to the vast and desolate White Sands Army missile range in New Mexico.
Boeing abandoned its first attempt to reach the space station in 2019, after software errors left the capsule in the wrong orbit and nearly doomed it. The company fixed the faults and tried again last summer, but corroded valves interrupted the countdown. After further repairs, Starliner finally lifted off from Cape Canaveral last Thursday and docked with the space station on Friday.
The station’s astronauts tested Starliner’s communications and computer systems during its five days on the space station. They also unloaded hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of groceries and other supplies that flew into the Boeing capsule, then filled it with empty air tanks and other discarded equipment.
A folded American flag sent by Boeing remained behind, to be picked up by the Starliner’s first crew.
“We’re a little sad to see her go,” station astronaut Bob Hines said over the radio as the capsule lifted off.
Starliner’s test dummy was along the ride – Rosie the Rocketeer, a take-off on Rosie the Riveter from World War II.
The repairs and renovation cost Boeing nearly $600 million.
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