Almost flawless. The Starliner, Boeing’s space capsule, landed Wednesday night, successfully completing an important test mission for the company, which wants to prove its ability to deliver NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule, with no passengers aboard, landed in the desert of the American state of New Mexico, at the base of White Sands, at 4:49 pm (0:49 am in France). “A nice landing on White Sand tonight,” a commentator said on the NASA video broadcast. Its descent is slowed by its entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, then by large parachutes, and contact with the ground is coated by large airbags.
The stakes are huge for Boeing, which has been trying to make this test flight a success for years, and for NASA, which has invested several billion dollars in building the spacecraft. In the future, it wants to hire its services to transport its astronauts to the International Space Station. The safe landing allows the American aeronautical giant to finally finish 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 served as a NASA taxi since 2020.
The Starliner hatch was closed Tuesday by astronauts aboard the ISS. He was carrying his 270 kg of cargo, including reusable oxygen tanks, which would be filled on Earth and returned to orbit later.
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 will have to return to the factory for repairs – within ten months.
This time, the flight to the ISS went smoothly, despite a few hiccups, specifically a problem seen with the propulsion system: two of the 12 thrusters the capsule used to put itself on the correct trajectory after take-off were not working. However, NASA and Boeing officials confirmed the significance of the incident. The capsule was also eventually docked, due to a technical problem with the device that allowed it to be attached to the station. Problems remain small, compared to previous pitfalls.
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 run the risk of finding itself without American vehicles, as after the closure of space shuttles in 2011. Until SpaceX, NASA was 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.