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Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returns to Earth, concluding a 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 with the help of parachutes and airbags in the New Mexico desert. The successful landing puts an end to a critical test flight for the Starliner, which demonstrated the craft’s ability to blast off into space, dock with the station, and then return home safely.

Shaped like a gumdrop, Boeing’s Starliner capsule was built in partnership with NASA to launch agency astronauts to and from the International Space Station, or ISS. The mission is part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has challenged private companies to create space taxis to transport people into low Earth orbit. But before NASA would allow its employees to board the craft, the space agency wanted Starliner to prove it could go through all the motions of the flight to the International Space Station — without people on board.

As the day went down, that unmanned test flight – called OFT-2 – ended with Starliner making every major step it was meant to accomplish. capsule successfully Launched into orbit on May 19, the ride into space atop an Atlas V rocket; approach and Docked with the International Space Station on May 20; She separated from the space station this afternoon before returning home. The flight was not entirely smooth. During the mission, the Starliner had a number of issues with the various thrusters, the small engines used to maneuver and propel the vehicle through space. None of these problems proved fatal to the flight, though, and Starliner was able to complete the OFT-2 as planned.

It was too Bumpy road to get to this launch. The name of this test flight, OFT-2, actually refers to the Orbital Flight Test-2. That’s because it’s a test flight of the same test flight that Boeing attempted in 2019. In December of that year, it launched the Boeing Starliner without a crew aboard, sending it into space on another Atlas V rocket. But a software glitch in the Starliner caused the capsule to incorrectly launch its thrusters after detaching from the rocket, and eventually, the spacecraft entered 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 International Space Station. Boeing had to bring the spacecraft home early and was able to land the capsule at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico – the same location where the Starliner has landed today.

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Boeing tried again to launch the Starliner last summer, but just hours before takeoff, the company paused the countdown after finding out. More than ten thrust valves were stuck and not opening properly. It has taken Boeing so far to fix the problems, and the company says the valves will likely be redesigned in the future. But now, two and a half years after the failed original flight, Starliner has finally proven it can launch and dock autonomously with the International Space Station — a major feature it will have to do over and over again when people are on board.

Landing is also a critical task for Starliner to get passengers home safely. To demonstrate these capabilities for this flight, the ISS capsule was detached at 2:36 PM ET, slowly circled around the station and then moved away from the orbiting laboratory. At 6:05 p.m. ET, Starliner used its onboard thrusters to slow itself and eject itself from orbit, putting it in course with Earth’s surface. Soon, the craft plunged into the planet’s atmosphere, where temperatures reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Starliner then used a series of parachutes to slow its descent before landing at White Sands over airbags to help cushion the descent. This was Starliner’s second successful landing, with Boeing already offering to land the craft during its first failed test flight in 2019.

“This landing is coming in at 5:49 p.m. Central time, about six days into the mission,” NASA’s Brandy Dean, communications officer, said in a live broadcast of the landing. “Just a nice landing in the white sand tonight.”

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There was some slight concern about this landing, as the Starliner had multiple problems with its thrusters throughout the flight. When the capsule was launched into space last week, two of the 12 thrusters used by Starliner failed to get themselves into the correct orbit. Boeing said the drop in chamber pressure caused the thrusters to cut early. In the end, the Starliner flight control system was able to redirect to the reserve thruster in time, and the capsule entered orbit as planned. However, those same thrusters were required to take the Starliner out of orbit, but it appears to be working as planned despite the two failed thrusters.

There were other bugs throughout the flight, too. A couple of different smaller thrusters, used to maneuver the Starliner while docked, also failed due to low chamber pressure. However, it did not prevent the capsule from sticking to the International Space Station. “We have a lot of redundancy that hasn’t really affected rendezvous operations at all,” Steve Stitch, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program Administrator, said during a press conference after the docking. On top of all that, the Boeing team noted that some of the Starliner thermal systems used to cool the spacecraft showed extremely cold temperatures, and the engineering team had to manage this during docking.

Starliner is still achieving many of its goals while docking with the International Space Station. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station opened the Starliner hatch this weekend, got into the vehicle and retrieved cargo brought to the station. The capsule brought about 600 pounds of cargo back to Earth, as well as Rosie the Rocketeer, a model who walked along inside the Starliner to simulate what it would be like when humans boarded it.

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Now, with the Starliner back on Earth, there’s a lot of work to be done. Over the coming months, NASA and Boeing will study the failures of this flight and determine whether the Starliner is ready to fly people into space during a test flight, called the CFT, for the Crewed Flight Test, which could happen by the end of the year. That would be a major achievement for Boeing, which has fallen far behind NASA’s other commercial crew provider, SpaceX. SpaceX has already made five manned flights to NASA aboard the Crew Dragon capsule, which carried its first passengers in 2020.

But if the Starliner were allowed to fly people, NASA would finally get what it always wanted: two different American companies able to take agency astronauts into orbit.

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