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Boeing’s Starliner capsule returns to Earth

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Boeing’s Starliner space capsule landed in the New Mexico desert on Wednesday, completing a six-day mission in which it finally reached the International Space Station and which could lead to flights with astronauts.

The capsule, without any crew on board, landed as scheduled at 6:49 p.m. Eastern Time at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico under a trio of parachutes. Airbags cushioned the landing.

The landing was the final leg of a crucial test for Boeing and NASA, which required the aerospace company to prove it could fly the vehicle safely to the station and return autonomously before allowing it to fly astronauts.

The return flight went well, NASA and Boeing said, from undocking the space station and then firing its thrusters to deorbit and reenter the atmosphere. As it plummeted back to Earth, its heat shield endured temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Just a nice touchdown at White Sands tonight,” Boeing spokeswoman Lauren Seabrook said during the live broadcast of the landing.

She added that the spacecraft landed about three tenths of a mile southeast of the landing site, “which is basically a bullseye,” she said.

It is unclear, however, when the first crewed flight would take place.

While en route to the station, two of her main thrusters cut out after sensors registered trouble. Backups started without delay, putting the spacecraft on course for the station, but once it approached the station, two more smaller thrusters, used to position the spacecraft for docking, also had problems, Boeing said. Additionally, the spacecraft’s thermal control system, used to keep the spacecraft at the correct temperature, also failed.

Despite these challenges, NASA and Boeing hailed the mission as a “historic” first that would give the space agency an alternative to SpaceX for transporting cargo and astronauts to the station. Mark Nappi, a Boeing vice president who oversees the Starliner program, said that despite the issues, “the spacecraft is in excellent condition” and “performed as it was supposed to.”

Steve Stich, who heads NASA’s commercial crew program, said last week that the problems had been overcome without too much trouble but that the “failures” should be investigated.

“We have a lot of redundancy, so it didn’t affect rendezvous operations at all or affect the rest of the flight,” he said after docking. “I know that after the flight we will go and study the breakdowns there and see what happened.”

This investigation is made more difficult by the fact that engineers on the ground will not be able to examine the two main thrusters that shut off since they are housed in the spacecraft’s service module, which was jettisoned during the return.

Still, NASA and Boeing celebrated the flight as a success. During a post-flight briefing on Wednesday evening, Stich said “the test flight was extremely successful. We met all mission objectives. He added that “the systems worked very well on the vehicle and, you know, once we’ve gone through all the data, we’ll be ready to fly the crew on the vehicle.”

Although there were several issues along the way, he said there were no “showstoppers”. Despite the issues with the thrusters, he said: “I see no reason why we can’t do a crewed flight test afterwards.”

Nappi added that “we are extremely satisfied with the outcome of this mission”.

Boeing and NASA have said they would like to be able to fly a mission with astronauts by the end of the year, but first they would have to make sure they understand all the problems that have arisen and study the data they have. the capsule now that it is back on the ground.

The program is already delayed for several years after a series of earlier problems. Boeing first attempted the uncrewed test flight in December 2019. But it had to cut the test short after a major software glitch and a communications failure caused the spacecraft to burn too much fuel and fail. not enter an orbit that would carry it to the space station. It took 20 months before the company tried again, but that flight even failed to take off last August when engineers discovered that 13 service module valves were stuck closed.

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