Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft returns to Earth to complete 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 take off into space, dock at the station and then return home safely.

Shaped like a chewing gum, 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 carry people into low Earth orbit. But before NASA would allow its employees to board the spacecraft, the space agency wanted Starliner to demonstrate that it could traverse all the motions of the flight to the International Space Station — without people on board.

As the day went on, the unmanned test flight – called OFT-2 – ended with Starliner taking all the important steps it was supposed to take. The capsule was successfully launched into orbit on May 19, traveling into space aboard an Atlas V rocket; approaching and docking at the International Space Station on May 20; She detached from the space station this afternoon before returning home. The ride wasn’t entirely smooth. During the mission the Starliner had many problems with the various thrusters, the small engines used to maneuver and propel the vehicle through space. None of these problems were fatal to the flight, however, the Starliner managed to complete the OFT-2 as planned.

It was a very bumpy road to get to this version. The name of this test flight, OFT-2, actually refers to the Orbital Flight Test-2. That’s because it’s a test flight for the same test flight that Boeing attempted in 2019. In December of that year, it launched an uncrewed Boeing Starliner, sending it into space on another Atlas V rocket. An improperly functioning Starliner caused the capsule to launch its thrust 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 prove 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 place where the Starliner landed today.

Boeing tried again to launch the Starliner last summer, but just hours before takeoff, the company paused the countdown after finding out. More than a dozen thrust valves were stuck and did not open properly. Boeing has gone that far to solve 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, the Starliner has finally proven that it can be launched autonomously and linked to the International Space Station – an important feature it will have to do over and over again once 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 capsule was deployed to the International Space Station at 2:36 p.m. ET, slowly orbited around the station, and then moved away from the orbiting laboratory. At 18:05 ET, the Starliner used its onboard thrusters to slow the pace out of orbit, bringing it in course with the Earth’s surface. The spacecraft soon plunged into the planet’s atmosphere, where temperatures reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The Starliner then used a series of parachutes to slow its descent before landing at White Sands on airbags to help cushion its descent. This was Starliner’s second successful landing, with Boeing already offering to land the plane during its first failed test flight in 2019.

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

There was little concern about this landing, as the Starliner had several problems with its thrusters during the flight. When the capsule was launched into space last week, two of the 12 thrusters used by the Starliner failed to enter the correct orbit. Boeing said the drop in chamber pressure caused earlier thrusters to be cut off. 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, these same thrusters were needed 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 few different smaller thrusters, used to maneuver the Starliner while docked, also failed due to low chamber pressure. However, that did not prevent the capsule from sticking to the International Space Station. “We have a lot of redundancy that hasn’t really affected the confrontation operations,” Steve Stitch, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said during a post-docking news conference. On top of all of this, 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 still achieves many of its goals as it docks 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 to Earth, as did Rosie Rocketer, a model who walked inside a Starliner to simulate what it would look like when humans boarded it.

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

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

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