The Boeing Starliner space capsule is due to finish its test mission on Wednesday

The Starliner flew from Florida on Thursday, and first landed on the International Space Station the next day. (Image: 123RF)

WASHINGTON – Boeing’s Starliner capsule is set to return to Earth Wednesday night after six days in space, the last important step in its test mission to establish a new mode of transportation to the International Space Station.

The landing of the capsule, with no passengers on board, must take place at 6:49 pm U.S. east coast time, in the desert of the U.S. state of New Mexico, at the base of White Sands.

Its descent will be slowed by its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes, and contact with the ground will be calmed by large airbags.

The stakes are huge for Boeing, which has been trying to eliminate this test flight for years, and for NASA, which has invested several billion U.S. dollars in developing the spacecraft. In the future, it wants to hire its services to deliver its astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

A landing carried out without incident would allow the aeronautical giant to end a successful mission from start to finish, after a failure in 2019. And at the same time to restore its image a bit, after being overtaken by SpaceX, which the capsule has been serving as a NASA taxi since 2020.

On Tuesday, the Starliner’s hatch was closed by astronauts aboard the ISS. The capsule must leave the station to begin the journey back at 2:36 pm Wednesday.

The capsule carries 270 kg of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks, which will be filled on Earth and returned to orbit later.

If the landing is postponed, for example due to bad weather conditions, a new opportunity is possible on Friday.

Repeated pitfalls

The Starliner flew from Florida on Thursday, and landed on the ISS for the first time the next day. In recent days, many tests have been conducted to verify the proper functioning of the vehicle when connected to the flying laboratory.

But the success of the docking on Friday, in particular, represents a real relief for Boeing, after the first attempt in 2019. The Starliner will at that time have to return sooner than expected, before managing to reach the station.

Landing was not a problem.

After this first failed mission and a long period of adjustments, the test flight will be reviewed again in August 2021. But once the rocket was on the launch pad, the capsule valves were blocked due to a moisture problem. The ship had to return to the factory for repairs — within ten months.

This time, the flight to the ISS went smoothly, despite a perceived problem with the propulsion system: two of the 12 thrusters used by the capsule to put itself on the correct trajectory after takeoff did not work.

These boosters will be re -ignited for the deorbit maneuver on Wednesday, intended to return the capsule to the Earth’s atmosphere. But NASA has assured that this bug will not be a problem.

Next human test

After this mission, a second demonstration flight, this time with astronauts on board, will have to be conducted for the spacecraft to obtain NASA certification.

Boeing expects to achieve this by the end of the year and then begin regular missions to the ISS. But the exact time depends on evaluating Starliner’s performance over the past few days.

The US space agency has signed fixed -price contracts with both SpaceX and Boeing.

By using the two companies, it wants to diversify its options, so as not to again risk finding itself without American means of transportation, such as after the closure of space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA actually reduced to paying for seats on Russian Soyuz rockets.

Elon Musk’s company, but a newcomer to the aerospace industry compared to Boeing, has already brought 18 astronauts to the ISS with its own capsule, Dragon – as well as four private passengers, during a tourism mission in space.

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