Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returns to Earth, concluding critical test mission

After spending just under a week on the space station, Boeing’s new passenger spacecraft, the CST-100 Starliner, returned to Earth this afternoon, landing intact using parachutes and rockets. airbags in the New Mexico desert. The successful landing ends a crucial test flight for Starliner, which demonstrated the vehicle’s ability to launch into space, dock at the station, and then return home safely.

Shaped like a gumball, Boeing’s Starliner capsule was built in partnership with NASA to launch the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station, or ISS. The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which challenged private companies to create space taxis to transport people to low Earth orbit. But before NASA let its personnel board the vehicle, the space agency wanted Starliner to demonstrate that it could perform all the movements of a trip to the ISS – with no one on board.

With today’s touchdown, this uncrewed test flight – called OFT-2 – has come to an end, with Starliner performing all the major milestones it was supposed to accomplish. The capsule was successfully launched into orbit on May 19, heading into space atop an Atlas V rocket; it approached and docked with the ISS on May 20; and he detached from the space station this afternoon before returning home. It wasn’t a completely smooth flight, however. Throughout the mission, Starliner encountered a number of issues with its various thrusters, tiny engines used to maneuver and propel the vehicle through space. However, none of these problems proved fatal to the flight, and Starliner was able to complete OFT-2 as planned.

It’s also been a bumpy road to get to this launch. The name of this test flight, OFT-2, actually stands for Orbital Flight Test-2. That’s because it’s a rerun of the same test flight that Boeing attempted to perform in 2019. In December of that year, Boeing launched Starliner without a crew on board, sending it into space on another Atlas V rocket. But a software glitch on Starliner caused the capsule to not properly fire its thrusters after separating from the rocket, and eventually the spacecraft went into overdrive. the wrong orbit. The issue prevented Starliner from reaching the space station, and Boeing was unable to show the spacecraft’s ability to dock with the ISS. Boeing had to get the spacecraft home early and was able to land the capsule at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico – the same place Starliner landed today.

Boeing attempted to launch Starliner again last summer, but just hours before liftoff the company halted the countdown after finding more than a dozen propellant valves were sticking and not opening properly. . It has taken Boeing so far to fix the issues, and the company says it’s possible a redesign of the valves will happen in the future. But now, two and a half years after the original botched flight, Starliner has finally shown it can autonomously launch and dock with the ISS – a key feature it will need to perform again and again when people will be on board.

Landing is also an essential task for Starliner to bring passengers home safely. To demonstrate these capabilities for this flight, the capsule detached from the ISS at 2:36 p.m. ET this afternoon, slowly flying around the station and then away from the orbiting laboratory. At 6:05 p.m. ET, Starliner used its onboard thrusters to slow itself and pull itself out of orbit, putting it in the path of Earth’s surface. Shortly after, the vehicle plunged into the planet’s atmosphere, experiencing temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Starliner then used a series of parachutes to slow its descent before landing at White Sands on top of airbags to help cushion the landing. It was the second successful landing for Starliner, as Boeing previously showcased the vehicle’s landing on its botched first test flight in 2019.

“This touchdown happens at 5:49 p.m. Central Time, almost exactly six days into the mission,” NASA communications manager Brandi Dean said during a live broadcast of the landing. “Just a nice touchdown at White Sands tonight.”

There was, however, a slight concern about this landing, as Starliner experienced multiple issues with its thrusters throughout the flight. When the capsule was launched into space last week, two of the 12 thrusters Starliner uses to fit into right orbit failed. Boeing said pressure drops in the chamber caused the thrusters to cut out prematurely. Ultimately, Starliner’s flight control system was able to redirect to a backup booster in time, and the capsule launched into orbit as planned. However, these same thrusters were needed to bring Starliner out of orbit, but they seemed to work as intended despite the two thrusters failing.

There were also other bugs throughout the flight. A few different smaller thrusters, used to maneuver Starliner during docking, also failed due to low chamber pressure. However, this did not prevent the capsule from attaching to the ISS. “We have a lot of redundancy that really hasn’t affected rendezvous operations at all,” Steve Stich, NASA program manager for the Commercial Crew Program, said at a press conference after mooring. And, on top of all that, the Boeing team noticed that some of the Starliner thermal systems used to cool the spacecraft were showing very cold temperatures, and the engineering team had to deal with that during docking.

Starliner still achieved many of its goals while docked to the ISS. Astronauts aboard the ISS opened the hatch to Starliner over the weekend, entered the vehicle and retrieved cargo brought to the station. The capsule brought about 600 pounds of cargo back to Earth, along with Rosie the Rocketeer, a dummy who rode inside Starliner to simulate what it will be like when humans board.

Now that Starliner is back on Earth, there is still a lot of work to do. Over the next few months, NASA and Boeing will study the failures on that flight and determine if Starliner is ready to carry people into space in a test flight called CFT, for Crewed Flight Test, which could take place by the end of the year. It will be a milestone for Boeing, which is far behind NASA’s other commercial crew provider, SpaceX. SpaceX has already completed five crewed flights to the station for NASA on its Crew Dragon capsule, which carried its first passengers in 2020.

But if Starliner is allowed to fly people, NASA will finally have what it’s always wanted: two different American companies capable of getting the agency’s astronauts into orbit.

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