Boeing’s Starliner has landed, but questions remain after flawed mission

Boeing's CST-100 Starliner spacecraft lands at White Sands Missile Range spaceport, Wednesday, May 25, 2022, in New Mexico

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft has landed safely at Space Harbor’s White Sands Missile Range.
Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Boeing’s Starliner landed successfully on the sandy desert surface of New Mexico yesterday, marking the completion of the spacecraft’s first uncrewed end-to-end test. It was a perfect landing, but the six-day mission was not without its problems.

the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft landed at 4:49 p.m. local time (6:49 p.m. EDT) at the White Sands Missile Range spaceport on Wednesday after spending six days in low Earth orbit. The spaceship deceased station with more than 600 pounds (270 kilograms) of cargo, including three reusable spent nitrogen and oxygen tanks that provided breathable air for ISS crew members.

Four hours after undocking from the orbital outpost, Starliner deployed three parachutes and six airbags to help it land smoothly. A team will now transport the vehicle to the company’s facilities at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for processing.

The test flight is part of Boeing’s $4.3 billion contract with NASA Commercial Crew Program to provide routes for its astronauts to and from the ISS. But Boeing had fallen behind in delivering a viable spacecraft after two previous failed test attempts, one in 2019 and one last year. Meanwhile, its commercial counterpart SpaceX (which won a $2.6 billion contract from NASA) has been drop off astronauts at the ISS for two years now.

The completion of this end-to-end test flight, called Orbital Flight Test-2 (OFT-2), has been a long time in coming, but it is already clear that there were several issues during the mission. .

The Starliner CST-100 spacecraft launched May 19 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. About 30 minutes after takeoff, one of the 12 thrusters responsible for orbital maneuvers malfunctionedfollowed by a backup thruster failure, as Steve Sitch, NASA Commercial Crew Program Manager, Explain during a post-launch press conference. A problem with the equipment that keeps Starliner cool also emerged shortly after the mission.

At the time of rendezvous with the ISS, a ring responsible for locking onto the station failed to deploy properly, causing Starliner to miss its scheduled contact time by more than an hour, according to AFP. And shortly after landing, the recovery team detected hydrazine vapor – a flammable oily liquid dangerous to inhale – around the spacecraft. That lingering chemical, which forced the recovery team to temporarily back off, may be because Starliner didn’t burn through all of its propellant, Stich said during a post-landing briefing. No leaks were detected, he added.

Despite these issues, the team behind the mission still seemed optimistic. “We have a few things to work on…but I don’t really see any obstacles,” Stich told reporters during the briefing. NASA and Boeing will now carefully analyze and review mission data, which will inform the next not. Assuming the problems encountered during OFT-2 are as minor as Stich claims, a crewed Starliner test flight could take place later this year.

During its brief stay in low Earth orbit, the Starliner was cared for by ISS crew members, who gave a video tour of the spacecraft while it was docked. The crew even got to meet Rosie the Rocketeer, a test dummy equipped with 15 sensors to convey what the astronauts aboard the spacecraft would have experienced during the trip. Although Rosie didn’t have much to say, NASA astronaut Robert Hines pointed to the dummy in the commander’s seat, saying “she’s got a nice view out the window there.”

Hopefully Boeing fixes Starliner’s problems before the spacecraft carries real astronauts, and not just Rosie.

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